A dog named Tucker, once a stray on the streets of Seattle, is playing a vital role in saving orcas, an endangered species. Tucker, a black lab mix, bears the proud distinction of being the “world’s only working dog” who is trained to detect and follow the scent of orca scat in the open ocean, at distances of up to a mile away.
Monitoring orcas is key to studying the health of the 85 or so who frequent the waters off the coast of the San Juan Islands. For decades, scientists have genotyped and tracked most of the whales. Some 500,000 tourists pay to see them in boats from May through October.
But all those humans, who contribute greatly to the local economy, are changing the habits of the animals. The salmon that the orcas mostly feed on have taken to hiding under commercial whale-watch boats when being hunted. The orcas themselves seem to be resting more during the day and less at night.
Deborah A. Giles is writing her Ph.D. dissertation on how orcas are affected by those thousands of tourists in commercial whale-watching vessels and Tucker is key to her research. Building on his obsession with balls — and despite his own aversion to getting wet — Tucker has been trained to associate an orange ball with the smell of orca scat. The New York Times describes him at work on a boat:
…unlike, say, a narcotics-sniffing dog that can lead its human around by a leash, the research boat itself is, in effect, Tucker’s legs when he has picked up the aroma. He cannot physically go where the sample is to be found, but must somehow signal where he wants the boat to go, with the feces somewhere out there on the water.
Like a Delphic oracle whose every nuanced expression must be interpreted by acolytes — Tucker might lean to one side of the boat, then another, then suddenly sink back onto his green mat with his head between his paws, the scent lost — his nose for scat leads on, and all must follow.
Just a twitch of Tucker’s ear can be significant.
It’s not just that he can pick up the salmon-rich scent of orca scat; he can also communicate that fact to Giles and Elizabeth Seely, a trainer from Conservation Canines who has worked with Tucker for four years. Another dog, a retriever named Sadie, is being trained as a “scat dog.” Sadie’s ball obsession was too much for her owner to deal with but it was precisely the reason that Professor Samuel K. Wasser, the director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington and the director of the orca scat research project, said they’d be glad to take her.
…extremely energetic with an excessive play drive. They will work happily and eagerly all day long, motivated by the expectation of a ball reward given only upon sample detection. The dogs’ fixation with the ball drives them to work 4-6 hours a day in the field.
Sadly, scat detection dog’s “obsessive, high-energy personalities” makes them “difficult to maintain as family pets” — many of the dogs are rescued from shelters where they might have faced euthanasia, a terrible loss considering the contributions Tucker and the other conservation canines are making.
Scat dogs are also being trained to assist in wildlife monitoring research involving elephants (hunted by poachers for their tusks), northern spotted owls, grizzly bears, the Pacific fisher and other animals. After the dogs locate scat, scientists extract DNA and hormone samples to learn about the animals’ health, possible causes of population decline and possible mitigation strategies, says Conservation Canines.
Conservation Canines saves dogs and turns their unique abilities into a powerful research tool. Rescued dogs as research partners to help save endangered species: It’s a powerful reminder of what animals can do to help humans and, indeed, other animals like the orcas whose survival is endangered.
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Photo of Tucker at work by ingridtaylar