Looking for one invasive weed in a field of native flora? You could have a team of botanists fan out to search.
Or you could bring in one dog.
Not just any dog, of course — a well-trained conservation dog. They find not only plants, but also endangered animals, all to help preserve species and ecosystems.
Non-profit group Working Dogs for Conservation (WDC) has nine dogs working on projects that illustrate some of the situations that call for their talents. One is to gather information on the Shiras or “Wyoming” Moose. While the species is thriving in some parts of their territory they are struggling in others, and conservationists want to know why.
Cue the conservation dogs, whose ability to locate moose scat yields a bounty of information about the moose population and even individual animals. Yes, I’m talking about poop, but it really is useful.
From the Mercury News:
Scientists can extract DNA — the genetic blueprints found in cells — from scat samples to check the sex of animals and learn who’s related to whom. Stool can also be used to evaluate diets, test hormone levels and check for diseases. By mapping areas where samples are found, an animal’s home range can also be determined. All that information helps conservationists keep tabs on endangered animals without having to hunt, trap or tag them.
Perhaps most impressive is conservation dogs’ ability to ferret out the tiniest of plant organisms. Right at home in Montana, the WDC dogs are on the job to eradicate Dyer’s Woad, an invasive weed that is wreaking havoc on the local ecosystem. People have been trying to rid Mount Sentinel in Missoula, Montana, of the plant for 14 years. Originally brought to this continent to use in place of indigo dye, it produces new seeds quickly and abundantly — up to 400 seeds per plant. Conservation dogs can find Dyer’s Woad plants when they are still very small, before they have generated all those seeds, allowing workers to nip the weed in the bud.
WDC also works much further afield from its base in Montana. The Cross River Gorilla has brought them all the way to Africa, to the border of Cameroon and Nigeria. The most endangered great apes in the world, Cross River Gorillas survive by hiding from people — and they are very good at it. It’s a good thing for them, since human activities — poaching and habitat destruction — are the biggest threats to their survival.
Once again, the dogs are sent in sniffing for scat. “Finding their scat makes it possible to learn about their movements, numbers and health without disturbing or harassing gorillas” — or even laying eyes on them. It “is also less costly than capturing and radio-collaring animals, which are intensive efforts in terms of manpower, money and handling the wild animals.”
Conservation dogs’ training draws from other kinds of canine detection work like search & rescue, narcotics, bombs and cadavers. Their handlers give them a scent to seek, and the dogs get to it, indicating to handlers when they have found the target odor. It sounds simple enough, but only about 1 in 1,000 dogs is up to the job.
The dogs who are best at this work are the ones who are too much for many shelters (many conservation dogs are rescued from shelters) and families because of their inexhaustible drive to play. They will fetch a ball over and over again. When they are on the job and find what they were tasked to look for, their reward isn’t a treat — it’s play time, their absolute favorite.
Conservation dogs must be reliable, because testing scat takes time and money, and if the scat is not from the target animal, those resources are wasted. They are also fast learners and bond closely with their handlers. At WDC, dogs live with their handlers their whole lives, even after they retire.
Other organizations are assembling their own staffs of conservation dogs. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has four new dogs trained to find contraband, like rhino horns, at the border.
Conservation dogs aren’t just “man’s” best friend: they may be the best hope for endangered species and ecosystems.
Photo credit: Thinkstock