Earth Day Spotlight: Working Dogs for Conservation
Wicket, an eight year-old black lab-cross wearing a red vest emblazoned with the words "Search Dog", came to a sudden stop at the base of a thick willow tree, turning and sitting in one swift motion, and awaited her reward of a tennis ball for a successful detection.
"Instead of using dogs to find narcotics, lets use them to find poop," Alice Whitelaw of Working Dogs for Conservation, said.
Only one in 1,000 dogs have what it takes to become a detection dog. The Three Forks Mont.-based research group uses dogs to search for everything from invasive species to noxious weeds to rare animal scat to illegal snares used by poachers in Africa.
Five Montana wildlife biologists came together in 2000 with a new idea to respond to a growing demand for non-invasive ways to do research.
Whitelaw, co-founder and director of programs for WDC, and her colleagues were not disappointed with the results, as testing showed the dogs were successful at finding scat 90 percent of the time.
WDC has used detection dogs in dozens of wildlife projects, including finding scat from Asiatic black bear, moose, and the endangered blunt-nosed leopard lizard in California.
Their work coincides with the increasing ability for scientists to extract DNA from feces.
"They’re discriminatory abilities are pretty amazing," Whitelaw said. "If a dog is in an area where a bear has moved through, then they realize a bear has been there, but they won't alert until they find scat because that’s what they’ve been trained on."
Dogs have the ability to find animal targets less invasively than bait or scent stations used in many animal studies already considered non-invasive. The stations require animals to move from their natural path, only attracting the boldest members of a species, and possibly decreasing the value of the results.
Dogs also often produce more results much faster than other research methods.
Safety is the primary concern for the trainers and their dogs.
"We’ve said no to targeting venomous snakes," Aimee Hurt, co-founder and director of operations for WDC, said.
The group works on both its own research projects, and projects funded by conservation organizations, government agencies and universities. One of their future projects partners with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Turner Endangered Species Fund, started by former media mogul Ted Turner, to see if their dogs can find invasive brook trout in Montana waterways.
"We like to prioritize things with a high conservation benefit, "Hurt said. "It never gets boring."
Photo shows Aimee Hurt, Director of Operations for Working Dogs for Conservation, and her detection dog, Wicket, train in a city park in preparation for an upcoming trip to Africa to aid wildlife officials in searching for and removing illegal snares set by poachers. Wicket, trained to detect 18 different targets, signals by sitting and waiting for a toy and approval from Hurt when a snare is located.
Photo Credit Tom Kuglin.
For more information on this important program link to Working Dogs for Conservation.