What is a Wildlife Detection Dog?

Dogs can be trained to use that amazing sense of smell of theirs – they have about 50 times more scent receptors in their noses than people do – to protect human lives by detecting things like bombs, cancer and narcotics.

Over the past two decades or so, dogs have also been trained to use their sense of smell to help save the lives of wildlife.

How do these dogs help save wildlife?

During the five years the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) Office of Law Enforcement’s Wildlife Detector Dog program, has been in existence, its trained dogs—working in facilities like air cargo warehouses and ocean containers—have sniffed out contraband like live endangered birds and turtles, shark cartilage powder and python skin shoes. These dogs are helping USFWS crack down on the illegal trafficking that’s wiping out the populations of elephants, rhinos, tigers, and other species around the world.

In addition to wildlife detection dogs, trained conservation dogs are helping wildlife by sniffing out their scat and locating invasive species.

The scat samples they find help researchers “ascertain species abundance, distribution, resource use, and physiological health all in relation to the environmental pressure(s) the species is encountering,” according to the Conservation Canines program, which the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology started in 1997.

The nonprofit Working Dogs for Conservation (WD4C) trains dogs to sniff out contraband as well as scat all around the world. These dogs also provide a non-invasive way of determining the migration patterns of cougars, bears and wolves in order to protect important wildlife habitat corridors.

Where do wildlife detection dogs come from?

The dogs best suited for this work need to be young, energetic, and have a strong drive to play. Those same qualities are often the reasons why people surrender dogs to animal shelters.

In a win-win situation, organizations like Conservation Canines and WD4C are saving the lives of these unwanted dogs and enabling them to pay it forward by training them to help save endangered wildlife.

“We rescue these dogs and offer them a satisfying career traveling the world to help save numerous other species,” says Conservation Canines, which only uses dogs from animal shelters and rescue organizations. WD4C started the Rescues 2 the Rescue program to help U.S. and Canadian animal shelters recognize and spare the lives of dogs that would make ideal detection dogs.

As for breeds, the Wildlife Detector Dog program uses labrador  retrievers and lab mixes from animal shelters and breeders. Conservation Canines uses labs and other breeds that “air scent,” including German shepherds and border collies.

Bloodhounds, rather surprisingly, aren’t suited for scat sniffing, because they’re scent trackers.

How are wildlife detection dogs trained?

Wildlife detection dogs are trained to detect specific wildlife scents, including those of elephant ivory, rhino horns and snakeskin. Conservation dogs are trained to sniff out different types of animal scat and various invasive species. Each conservation dog can be trained to detect up to 12 different species.

The training process is similar to the one used for narcotics-detection dogs. Making it seem like a game and using positive reinforcement, the dogs are rewarded by their handlers — often with a ball or toy — when they successfully find the desired item.

Dogs and their handlers in the Wildlife Detector Dog program spend 13 weeks in training. The Conservation Canine program conducts short training sessions over a couple of months. The dogs are also trained not to chase any wildlife they encounter.

What happens to these dogs when they retire?

Wildlife detection dogs usually work until they’re eight or nine years old. Many of them spend the rest of their lives with their handlers. Because these dogs have usually mellowed with age, it’s also easier to adopt them out into forever homes.

Can my dog become a wildlife detection dog?

Family pets don’t make suitable wildlife detection dogs.

“In most cases, a dog that has successfully been placed in a home does not have the qualities we are looking for,” according to the Conservation Canine program’s website. “We’re looking for dogs that have so much drive that shelters have a difficult time trying to place them in a home.”

WD4C also notes that the obsessive play drive and unrelenting toy focus of these dogs makes them nearly impossible to keep in a family home but ideal for wildlife detection work. “We do it to save the world,” the WD4C website states. “They do it for the love of a ball.”

Photo credit: Chris Kofron/USFWS


Michael Friedmann
Michael Friedmann3 months ago

Thank You for Sharing This !!!

hELEN hEARFIELD3 months ago


Peggy B
Peggy B4 months ago


hELEN hEARFIELD5 months ago


Cindy M. D
Cindy M. D6 months ago

I love articles like this one. TYFS! Just more proof that dogs have such beautiful souls. I love how much they love to help others. I could never live in a world without dogs.

Mark Donner
Mark Donner6 months ago

Kill shelters are the enemy of society.. criminal organizations run by criminals in the
USDA who get kickbacks from puppy mills.

Lesa D
Past Member 6 months ago

thank you Laura...

Thomas M
Past Member 6 months ago

Thank you

Winn Adams
Winn A6 months ago


HEIKKI R6 months ago

thank you