Amy Sutherland is a journalist and author whose books include What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love and Marriage (Random House), and Kicked, Bitten and Scratched. Her work has appeared numerous times in The Bark.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Walter Joe shows how a dog can be adoptable but not “shelterable.”
March 28 2017
Sheila D’Arpino was the first in the country to complete a one-of a-kind program: a three-year postgraduate combined study of shelter medicine and animal behavior at the University of California–Davis’s well-regarded veterinary school. She had wanted to be a veterinarian since she was a child, but once the California native became one, she found it wasn’t enough.
With so many shelter dogs euthanized for their behavior, Sheila believed that to truly help those animals she had to treat their minds as well as their bodies. At UC Davis she became the equivalent of a psychiatrist. She studied shelter dog behavior and learned how to treat their problems with training or, in some cases, with drugs. The biggest lesson she learned in the end, however, was philosophical: Every dog is an individual. There is no one kind of fearful dog, for example. Behind the crouches and tail tucks, a unique personality exists. That’s a long way from the thinking of the seventeenth century French philosopher René Descartes, which stymied our understanding of animals for more than three centuries and still holds sway in some quarters. Descartes argued that animals were not only soulless but lacked any kind of reasoning. They had no more intelligence or interior life, he believed, than that of a well-oiled clock. He called animals “beast machines.” Even in the seventeenth century, many pet owners must have disagreed.
Now canines are the darlings of scientific cognition studies, and “every dog is an individual” has become the buzz phrase of the shelter world. It is, however, one of those simple proclamations that are easy to agree with but surprisingly difficult to apply, especially in an institutional setting, where labels and generalities come easily. It is especially hard to apply to growling, biting dogs such as Walter, who are often dubbed inherently “bad” or “dangerous” and are put down as a public service, as one shoots a marauding grizzly bear. Granted, a dog such as Walter, who behaved like a Terrier from hell his first day at the ARL, poses a practical problem: If no one could handle him, there was no safe way to keep him in the shelter. Luckily, a veterinarian with special training and an enlightened outlook happened to work for the shelter just then. Even more luckily, D’Arpino had a yard and an enclosure where Walter would, she hoped, calm down. Only then would she see who this dog was behind the flashing teeth and growling, if he was, in fact, a “dangerous” dog or one who snapped when he was scared out of his wits. Slowly she got some answers. Once Walter moved into her house, he kept his distance for about a month. Then he began to follow Sheila around. He would playfully run around on his short, squat legs, mouth open in a smile, his long, narrow tongue flapping. Then he climbed into her lap.
When Walter sees D’Arpino, he leaps off the dryer and runs to her. When she sits cross-legged on our hallway floor, he plops into her lap. He puts his front paws on her chest so he can look into her eyes while she strokes his back. His glassy eyes brighten. He doesn’t flinch when she clicks on his collar. We glimpse who a happy, relaxed Walter might be. I sink to the hallway floor next to her, hoping that some of her charm will wear off on me. After about ten minutes of chitchatting with Scott and me while she pets Walter, she has to go home to her family and her multiple dogs. I hold Walter’s reattached leash so he won’t follow his only friend in the world as D’Arpino leaves.
“Sorry, Walter,” I say as I close the door.
The night returns to normal, kind of. I have to pull Walter down our front steps in the chill of a wintry evening to go for an overdue walk. He shivers as we head up and down the icy sidewalks. I wish I could put a jacket on him. Back inside, he hurries down our long hallway to the safety and warmth of the dryer. Then, for some reason, maybe because we’re tired, Scott and I do something we never do. We lie down on the floor to watch TV. Not long after we have stretched out on our sides and arranged throw pillows just so, we notice Walter’s small silhouette in the hallway. He pads tentatively toward us and then stops. He lets his head droop.
“Look,” we whisper to each other, meaning “Look out of the corner of your eye.”
Walter takes a few more steps toward us. When he has almost reached the living room’s light, he pauses again. He seems to be thinking. Maybe he’s thinking he’ll have to make do with the two knuckleheads on the floor. Maybe he’s thinking about the nice massage he just got from his only friend in the world. A look of resolve comes over his pointed face. He suddenly races at Scott and snuggles up against my husband’s chest. We quietly raise our eyebrows at each other.
Walter slept with us from that night on, often putting his head on our pillows or worming his way under the blankets. He hopped into our laps whenever we sat down. He began to play, dashing up and down our long hallway while we yelled, “Mad dog, mad dog!” Walter was so crazy to ride in the car that we had to spell the word to each other, otherwise he’d bolt for the front door and start squeaking pathetically. He shadowed me, even sat in the bathroom while I took a shower. He also followed Penny Jane, who, in her aloof way, seemed to like him.
Eventually we could take the Terrier’s leash off and put it on, and then his collar. He did nip me once, as I tried to brush road salt off a back foot. I knew I shouldn’t have, but he was limping. Luckily I had a thick glove on, and he only bruised my hand. He had become a pet dog again, though one whose feet you’d best leave alone.
We sent him to the shelter with a good report card: loving, housebroken, funny. The dog who’d once been a gnashing mongoose clearly had a future as a family pet. Yet almost the moment the kennel door closed behind him, his eyes went black and glassy again. He growled at staffers when they looked into his kennel. For fear he would nip someone, only D’Arpino or I took him out. When he saw either of us, he exploded with happiness. When we left, he shut back down. I got word that the shelter was thinking of putting him down. How could they put a dog up for adoption whom they couldn’t handle? I had never wanted a Terrier, especially a Jack Russell. I had never wanted a male dog, or a little dog.
When we brought Walter home for good we goofed up his name some to put our official stamp on him. He became Walter Joe Jr. We started calling him Waltie-Bear or Joey or Junior or Dub-yuh or Mister or Champ or Bubbles—all names he learned. Though he showed no signs of it in the shelter, he was completely capable of living in a home, not to mention riding in canoes, staying in hotels, and lounging on the beach. He was, as they say, “homeable” but not “shelterable.” To be the former, as it turns out, does not mean a dog can be the latter.
These dogs are such conundrums. Shelter staff have to decide if a dog can be safely adopted based on his behavior in a stressful environment that in no way resembles a home. The equivalent would be judging a person while he is in the hospital, bedridden, stuck with IVs, anxious, bored, and with no family to comfort him. Would you see that person’s true character? Or would you see the equivalent of Walter in the shelter? Luckily I haven’t seen many Walters since I began volunteering. Most dogs manage okay enough in the enervating tedium, at least at first. Some even improve with regular meals and walks. But even the dogs who seem to thrive can, over weeks, months, appear to deteriorate. They bark more, jump more, maybe start to lunge at strangers or other dogs. They become obsessed with balls, as happened with Gwen Stefani. These dogs can begin to seem less and less adoptable, which makes it harder to find them a home, which means they stay in the shelter longer and longer. A vicious cycle begins. It’s not always enough to find a dog a home. You have to find one quickly.
Excerpted from Rescuing Penny Jane by Amy Sutherland. Copyright © 2017 by HarperCollins. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Karen Pryor took tools and insights refined with dolphins and applied them to dogs, and training has never been the same… thank goodness!
In 1974, Karen Pryor zipped off her wet suit and hung up her dolphin-training whistle—for good, she thought. She left Hawaii and eventually moved to New York City with her teenage daughter, where she set up shop as a freelance writer. Pryor already had two books under her belt, and now embarked on her third: an easy-to-read manual on using the science of operant conditioning in everyday life, whether it be with pet Poodles or grouchy bus drivers. She hoped, as she says, that the book would also stop parents from yelling at their kids. Taking a line from Pryor’s manuscript, her editor dubbed the book Don’t Shoot the Dog. Pryor hated the title.
The slim volume was published in 1984. It didn’t stop people from screaming at their kids as Pryor had hoped. It was, however, embraced by dog trainers, and in short order, Pryor was invited to speak at their gatherings. She accepted nervously—she knew dolphins far better than she knew dogs. “I was completely surprised,” Pryor says. “It was only because of the title that I had objected to.”
Twenty-some years later, Pryor’s book is still in print. The author has become a well-known training authority, and clicker training, the method her book inspired and she fostered, has made noticeable inroads. Exactly how many people are using clicker training is unclear. Estimates vary from 10 to 50 percent of professional dog trainers. The training method certainly has a very real presence on the web: 150 chat lists exist on Yahoo alone. In the past year, visits to Pryor’s company’s website, clickertraining.com, have increased 72 percent. Hits have come from around the globe, including Kenya, China, even Iran.
Not only has clicker training grown exponentially in the past dozen years, but its emphasis on using positive reinforcement has turned dog training on its head. “It’s night and day now,” says Jean Donaldson, director of the San Francisco SPCA’s Academy of Dog Trainers and author of The Culture Clash.
Before clicker training, the Koehler method, relying on correction and punishment, was the overwhelmingly predominant style. The only choice, Donaldson says, was what kind of collar to use—pinch or prong. Traditional dog training is all about telling a dog he’s made a mistake by jerking his leash or pinching his ear. Clicker training took a glass-half-full approach.
“We never taught the dog what to do,” says Corally Burmaster, a longtime trainer who runs the Clicker Training Center in Leeds, Virginia. “We taught them what not to do. The emphasis now is finding positive ways to communicate to our dogs what we want them to do. The emphasis has shifted dramatically.”
Pryor, in large part, is responsible for this shift. Though not the first to use positive reinforcement with dogs, she was the first to explain how it could be used effectively with them, not to mention with other species. Though dog trainers have worked out the finer points of clicker training, Pryor provided the philosophical underpinnings and scientific ideas behind it. As Ken Ramirez, head of training at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, puts it, “Her book was a guiding light.” Leave it to a dolphin trainer to revolutionize the world of dog training.
This morning in Newport, Rhode Island, Pryor’s influence can be seen and heard. Nearly 400 trainers, mostly women in fleece pullovers with clickers dangling from their necks like lockets, have flocked to a seaside hotel for a weekend of seminars put on by Karen Pryor Clicker Training. Their vans and wagons, with bumper stickers that read “I Click with My Dog,” cram the parking lot. They wander the hotel’s halls with Border Collies and Australian Shepherds by their side. The dogs can’t resist a bark or two at the sight of Panda, a clicker-trained seeing-eye horse, who parts the crowd like a visiting monarch wherever she goes. A slightly high, tinny sound, like people snapping their fingers, echoes through the hotel. This crisp beat, a percussive rendition of the word “yes,” has an uncanny cheeriness to it.
A small army, about 100 strong, settles into rows of padded banquet seats to listen to Pryor talk about cleaning up cues. While a Whippet gnaws loudly on a rawhide in the aisle, Pryor describes the various ways we humans, with all our fidgeting, give dogs—who take body language literally—inadvertent cues. When you give a hand cue for “sit,” she says, you may unconsciously cock your head or throw out a hip. Maybe you toss back your hair. To the canine mind, these are all important signals. “Which one is the dog following?” Pryor says. “God only knows.”
The assembled are here as much to learn about cues as they are to sit at the feet of their inspirational leader. If they expected someone with buckets of charisma, à la Cesar Millan, they might be disappointed. Pryor has an unassuming presence, except for a smile so warm it’s almost beatific. At 74, she’s slender and keeps her hair a soft shade of strawberry blond. She has an easy, down-to-earth manner and isn’t afraid to make mistakes when working a dog in front of an audience. She is also not one for mystique. If anything, Pryor is the anti-whisperer—she’s taken the mystery out of dog training, showing that you don’t have to be a natural or have a special aura. You just need a bit of science, a bit of operant conditioning. “It’s not magic,” Pryor says. “It’s just easy. Anyone with an IQ can do it.”
At its core, operant conditioning is deceptively simple: Behavior is shaped by its consequences. At Harvard University, B.F. Skinner, the father of operant conditioning, demonstrated this through countless experiments with pigeons. He also found that positive reinforcement was far more effective than punishment at soliciting desired behaviors. As Pryor points out, operant conditioning isn’t hard to understand but is devilishly hard to apply, if only because it is so counterintuitive to humans, who are quick to use punishment as a teaching tool.
Pryor had her initial go at applying operant conditioning when her first husband drafted her to train the dolphins at his new marine facility, Sea Life Park in Hawaii. Pryor was far more interested in the park’s reef fish, but she was the only one handy with any training experience. She had worked with her Weimaraner, Gus, and then her Welsh ponies. However, nothing she had done with her dog or ponies really applied to the dolphins, especially given that she was on land and they were in a big tank of saltwater. She couldn’t use reins or a leash. If the dolphins didn’t want to work, they just swam off.
“A big ‘Aha!’ for me was discovering operant conditioning,” she says. Like other early dolphin trainers, she realized that a wholly new approach was needed, and found it in operant conditioning. The science not only made stunningly good sense to Pryor, but she quickly had proof of its effectiveness as she taught the wild-caught dolphins to flip on command. A crucial tool was the whistle, which, in operant-conditioning talk, is a bridge. The whistle tells the dolphin exactly when it has done the desired behavior and to come poolside for a reward of fish.
This was the crucial piece of the puzzle for dog trainers who had tried to use positive reinforcement, such as Burmaster. “The ability to communicate precisely what you wanted, that was the piece for me that was missing,” Burmaster says.
In her early talks to dog trainers, Pryor used her dolphin whistle to demonstrate how to use a bridge. Dog trainers got the idea, but didn’t go for the whistle. In 1991, Pryor teamed up with Gary Wilkes, then a shelter manager and now a well-known clicker trainer, to give talks. Wilkes proposed using a plastic noisemaker he’d found in a novelty store rather than a whistle. The twosome handed them out at a presentation, and clicker training was essentially born.
Burmaster, who had given up training because, as she says, “she got tired of jerking her dogs around,” attended a Pryor–Wilkes seminar that same year. She went home and in short order, taught her Airedale to hold a dumbbell and her quarter horse to quit whirling when it was released into the field. She returned to training and started the Clicker Journal. Likewise, Donaldson, after attending a seminar in 1992, went, as she says, “clicker mad.” “It blew my mind,” she says. “I went home and trained my dog for hours.”
In 1993, Pryor started Sunshine Books, which publishes various clicker training manuals, and that enterprise grew into her larger company, Karen Pryor Clicker Training. In 1998, she moved from Washington state to the Boston area to be closer to her daughter and grandchildren. She lives on the first floor of a two-family house that borders a golf course in the western suburb of Watertown. She shares her digs with Twitchet, her 15-year-old Border Terrier, and Misha, an eight-year-old German harlequin Poodle. Both are clicker trained.
Though Pryor is a celebrity in the dog-training world, that is just one facet of her very busy, productive life. Her 1963 book on breastfeeding is still in print and has sold over two million copies. She’s authored many scientific papers. She has worked with a large variety of species, and is a regular consultant to zoos, which explains why, during her Newport talk, she showed video of a warthog and a lion who had been clicker-trained. She has joined forces with a scientist, a gymnastics coach and a dance teacher to see how clicker training can be used to teach humans. And she is writing a new book, Reaching the Animal Mind, due out from Scribner’s in 2008. A philosophical approach knits all this varied work together, she says. Her central thrust is to “reduce gratuitous cruelty in the world.”
To that end, she’s made some headway in the pet dog world. Though there’s far more work to be done, she’s set the ball rolling. Clicker training “has a life of its own now,” she says. “I can almost kick back now and let it take its own course.”
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Harvard puts canine cognition to the test
My dog was a little late for her test at Harvard University. Penny Jane was clearly nervous. Then she saw the testing room’s slick linoleum floors and the glare of the fluorescent lights, which screamed veterinarian’s office to her. She trembled and panted lightly as she scanned the shadowless room, probably for a syringe. When she turned her black nose up at a salmon-flavored treat, I worried that my Border Collie mix was going to flub her Ivy League school exam.
Both of our anxieties were misplaced. No one was going to get an F or a vaccination. Penny Jane’s “test” was part of an ongoing study at Harvard University’s Canine Cognition Lab. The lab was started in early 2009 by Marc Hauser, a Harvard professor who has long studied cognition, to research how domestic dogs think. To do so, Hauser has enlisted the help of Boston-area dog owners such as me to provide the tailwagging subjects for his research. A couple of thousand pooches have been tested so far. Penny Jane was somewhere around number 350.
Many a dog owner through the centuries has wondered what goes on in his pooch’s mind. But the question has held little interest for scientists, who have devoted endless hours to studying how other species think— especially rodents, pigeons and primates. Meanwhile, the animal brain right at our feet or in our laps went unexamined.
That is changing. There are currently canine cognition labs at the University of Florida, Duke University and Barnard College, as well as several in Europe. In July, some 500 scientists from around the globe gathered at the second Canine Science Forum in Vienna, Austria, to deliver papers on dogs’ understanding of human communication and how domestication has shaped their social skills.
“The field is a little crowded just now,” says Hauser.
The scientist, who has worked with cotton-topped tamarins since 1992, is a relative latecomer to the trend. This is his first cognition study with dogs. Why Hauser switched from diminutive monkeys to the family dog speaks to the practical reasons behind the growing interest in canine cognition. For starters, funding for primate research has become scarcer and scarcer, according to Hauser. Working with pet dogs means a lab does not have to bear the expense of keeping animals. Pet dogs also provide Hauser with volume. Rather than study 20 tamarins, Hauser will have results from several thousand dogs by the end of his current study. If one dog’s trial, say Penny Jane’s, goes awry, it won’t statistically throw off the whole study as it would with only 20 animals.
Moreover, scientists can explore issues with pet dogs that they can’t with other species, such as how domestication has affected a species’ thinking, or if there are ways Canis lupus familiaris has become more like Homo sapiens. “Unlike all the other animals, there is some possibility that they have acquired some of our moral behavior,” Hauser says.
And as always, by studying another species we can learn about our own, and chip away at the age-old question of how we became unique. In my specific case, I feared the study would demonstrate, despite all my efforts to the contrary, what an anthropomorphizing egomaniac I was. Though I prided myself on what a cool head I had about animals, I’d gotten off to a bad start before the two of us even arrived at the lab by bragging to all my friends that Penny Jane was going to Harvard. Did I, like so many dog lovers, ultimately see my pup as a reflection of myself?
That question was not on Hauser’s list. Rather, he’s investigating how dogs respond to physical as well as emotional cues, how much patience they have, and whether they understand the concept of sameness, as in two identical objects. To answer these and other questions, dogs are ushered into a large, mostly bare room with a broad window facing south on one side and a mirrored wall on the other. Here, pups are repeatedly asked to choose between two identical buckets, but in varying circumstances.
As scientific experiments go, there’s a lot out of Hauser’s control. For one, the dogs hail from a wide range of backgrounds. Some are trained, as Penny Jane, whom I taught to open cereal boxes (this has come back to haunt me). Others are hardly trained at all. The pups range widely in breeds, sizes and ages. The owners are also a big variable. Some might overly prompt their dog or grow frustrated. “Some think they should be more involved and won’t listen to us,” Hauser said. “One owner felt compelled to say we are doing it all wrong.” I didn’t do that, but I did repeatedly drop Penny Jane’s leash at the wrong time.
In the early months of the study, Hauser and his lab assistants worked out the trial’s kinks. They found that some dogs were distracted by the window, others liked to stare at themselves in the mirror and some wanted to play with the experimenter. They tweaked the trials to keep the dogs’ attention as best they could, though some would still lie down and fall asleep, as Hauser’s own Newfie did.
There was no way Penny Jane was going to nap. She stepped gingerly into the experiment room with her whitetipped, curled-in-a-letter-C tail tucked between her legs even though the research assistant proffered treat after treat. To find out what Penny Jane was thinking, the long-limbed, lean young woman directed us to a far corner of the room, where there was a chair and a square outlined in black tape on the floor. I took a seat, as did Penny Jane, but not in the marked box, so I had to push her like a lump of clay into the square, then scoot her around again to face the assistant. She looked at me over her shoulder with wide brown eyes that begged, “What are you thinking?”
The assistant tried to warm up Penny Jane by dropping treats in a bucket with a flap and setting it on the floor for her to investigate. But once seated in the square, Penny Jane was glued to it. The dog who once excavated an entire beach to unearth a single Cheeto now remained frozen, no matter how we egged her on in our chirpy voices. I didn’t need a scientific study to tell me what she was thinking, which was, “You two humans are freaking me out.” I was thinking, “What will I tell my friends if Penny Jane gets kicked out of Harvard?”
Finally, I gave her a familiar cue. “Find it,” I said, and my girl ever so carefully approached the bucket. Then she caught the whiff of a treat, curled a paw around the flap to lift it, and dug her nose deep into the bucket and grunted happily. She trotted back to the black square chewing, her tail at full curlicue.
With Penny Jane now a willing subject, the official trial began. Over the next 20 minutes, she sat in the black square and repeatedly pondered which bucket to approach. A few times the lab assistant pointed to the bucket with the treat, and Penny Jane gave her the equivalent of a canine “duh” and followed her index finger to the correct one. When the lab assistant pointed to one bucket with her foot, Penny Jane paused and then walked to the other one, the empty one. But when the lab assistant hoisted a small television in both arms and then pointed to a bucket with her foot, Penny Jane readily went to the correct one. The lab assistant explained that this showed that Penny Jane understood contextual signals, meaning she saw the lab assistant’s hands were occupied so that she had to use a foot.
I began to swell with pride, though I fought it by repeating “bad girl, bad girl” in my head. My Penny Jane, the unsocialized pup who was described to me as the “scaredest” dog in the shelter, was turning in a solid B performance, and at Harvard University, no less. Then, in a section designed to test dogs’ sensitivity to human emotions, the lab assistant picked up a bucket in her hands and scolded it: “No, no, no.” As I feared, Penny Jane essentially put her pencil down. She stood up, walked to my side, lay down and looked out the window. The dog who’d never been corrected, never been spoken to sternly, wasn’t going anywhere near the now scary lab assistant or buckets, not even if filet mignon were stashed inside. We were going to be one of those test results.
After a break, Penny pulled herself together and finished the entire trial, including a last section that tested how she used her sense of smell to differentiate between the identical buckets. In the end, her results were pretty typical, except that she chose the correct bucket each time in the very section that gave her trouble.
As we left, the lab assistant handed me a Harvard diploma of a sort with Penny Jane’s name inked on it in big letters. I laughed it off to the lab assistant, but called my husband on the drive home to crow that our pound pup had a Harvard degree. The results of Hauser’s study and what they say about how dogs think are still in the offing, but as for what it said about me, the results were already painfully clear.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Scientists enlist detection dogs in their quest to learn more about whales
Perched on the bow of a small boat racing across Puget Sound, Tucker can catch the scent of killer whale scat from as far away as a nautical mile. When he whiffs the slightly salmony smell, the 60-pound Lab leans hard over the bow, so hard that his handler must hang on with all his might to keep him from toppling overboard. The captain points the boat the direction of Tucker’s black nose.
Tucker is one of the few dogs in the world who has been used to track whale scat on the open ocean. Another is Fargo, a Rottweiler, who tracks right whale droppings on the North Atlantic. Each, with his finely trained nose, has been helping solve puzzles and in the doing, saving fellow mammals.
“Nobody ever dreamed we could do what we are doing, ” says scientist Samuel Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Scat provides scientists with a mother lode of biological information about an animal, from its diet to its genetics. It can tell them if an animal is sick or affected by toxins. Using scat, scientists hope to find the answers to mysteries, such as why right whales have not flourished.
That is the question that has long nagged Rosalind Rolland, senior scientist at the New England Aquarium. Right whales, despite long, concerted efforts by scientists and conservationists, have yet to thrive. Before commercial whaling nearly finished them off, an estimated 100,000 right whales plied the cold northern Atlantic. By the time a worldwide hunting ban went into effect in the 1930s, only about 100 called those waters home; some 70 years later, their population still only numbers a mere 300 to 350.
No one knows exactly why right whales have not rebounded. Ship strikes and habitat destruction are suspected, but Rolland also wonders if the female whales are not conceiving. To answer that question, she needed to test the animals’ reproductive hormones but, as she says, “You can’t catch a 50-ton whale and take a blood sample.”
So, in 1999, Rolland and her husband, fellow scientist and whale researcher Scott Kraus, began scanning the Bay of Fundy for flotillas of bright-orange right whale poop. Though they found some, it was slow going. The scat only floats on the surface for about a half hour or so before sinking; adding to the difficulty, the notoriously rough water of the Bay of Fundy—tucked between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia—often knocks it apart in short order. On top of that, bad seas frequently kept the research boat in harbor at Lubec, Maine, limiting the opportunities the team had to search. In two weeks, they found five samples.
Wasser visited Rolland in 2001 and told her she had the perfect scenting conditions for a dog. “At first I thought he was out of his mind,” she says. In the late ’90s, Wasser, working with Washington trainer Barbara Davenport, pioneered teaching dogs to track the scat of terrestrial animals, such as cougars, foxes, moose, and even giant anteaters. Wasser’s Center for Conservation Biology now has 19 of these conservation dogs, but back then, they had yet to train a dog to track scat from a boat on the water. The big challenge was the dog could not physically lead the trainer to the source, nor nose the scat as is done on land. “This is completely unlike any kind of detection work,” Davenport says.
Davenport started by choosing the right dog for the job. For starters, the pooch had to have a strong play drive so he would work long and hard for the chance to tug or catch for a few minutes. Color was also a consideration; a white dog would be exposed to too much sun on the bow of a boat, Davenport says. Also, the dog needed a wide stance to keep his balance on a moving boat. That narrowed it down to a blackish, wide-chested, ball-crazy dog who was not inclined toward seasickness. Davenport tested canine candidates by taking them for a boat ride on a lake.
Once she had identified likely prospects, she trained them to identify the scent of whale scat the same way she would teach a dog to identify any kind of smell—basically, by repeatedly reinforcing them for discerning it. The problem was, Davenport only had only so much scat to work with. Whale scat is oily and smells of rotten fish. “I have two freezers full of [animal] poop,” Davenport says. “Whale is the worse. Give me wolf or bear any day.”
Davenport eventually settled on Fargo, a Rottie who had overheated and wearied while tracking grizzly scat, which made him a good candidate for standing still in the chill air of the North Atlantic. Wearing an orange flotation jacket and a harness, Fargo joined Rolland’s summer 2003 research team. Though he surprised everyone by getting seasick, Rolland was smitten. “He’s the tall, dark and handsome type,” she says. (Rolland, who’s also a veterinarian, gave Fargo Bonine.)
Tracking scat on the water puts a lot of pressure on handlers, who can’t just let the dogs lead them to the dung. Rather, they have to read the dogs’ body language. Rolland learned Fargo’s, which includes putting his nose in the air, throwing his ears forward and wagging his little stump of a tail. Since ocean-going scat is on the move, Rolland also had to learn to read the wind and watch the bay’s swirling currents, guessing from the direction Fargo’s nose pointed where the scat might drift. As the boat came close to the sample, Fargo would sit and Rolland would play ball with him while a field assistant netted the sample.
With Fargo on board, Rolland’s team found as many as 10 to 12 samples a day, sometimes one every 20 minutes or so. She brought Fargo back for the next three summers until funding for his services ran out. She hopes to have a pooch back on board for the summer of 2010. In the meantime, she is still testing the 300 samples that Fargo’s nose found. “The lowest-tech technique turns out to be the most effective,” says Rolland.
On the other side of the continent, Tucker is helping solve another whale mystery. In the late 1990s, one-fifth of the orcas in Puget Sound died. Given that the orca’s primary prey, Chinook salmon, had declined dramatically, the whales may have starved to death. They also may have been poisoned by PCP or struck and killed by boats, or all the above. To tease out the answer, Wasser needed scat, a lot of it.
Like Rolland, Wasser began searching for whale feces himself, but found it even slower going. Orca scat is the color of the water and smells mostly like fish. Even when Wasser found it, the soft and slimy stuff would often seep through the collecting net. When Wasser and his assistant were lucky enough actually net some orca waste, the sample was typically small, about the size of the end of a person’s little finger.
That changed in the summer of 2007 when Wasser enlisted Tucker, a five-year-old Lab mix. In response to the cue “Find it,” Tucker led Wasser to five times more scat. Moreover, the samples were far bigger, big enough, the scientist says with relish, “to fill a sandwich bag.” As a reward, Wasser and Tucker play a few minutes of tug.
Tucker is Wasser’s favorite dog at the Conservation Center. The happy go-lucky mutt has worked in sub-zero temperatures tracking elk and wolf scat, which he found two feet under the snow. Tucker’s not only a hard worker, he hates the water, so there’s no worry about him jumping in—though he hangs off the side of the boat as it nears the orca scat. Wasser rewards the dog with a few minutes of tug.
Despite his training, Tucker is only as good as his human team. At first, Wasser underestimated the distance at which Tucker could pick up the scent. Arriving at the empty stretch of water that Tucker had seemed to indicate, Wasser assumed the scat had sunk. In fact, the team hadn’t gone far enough.
Like the Bay of Fundy, Puget Sound made the task tricky. The boat must move perpendicular to the wind so Tucker can catch a scent, but given the sound’s many straits and gaps between islands, wind direction shifts constantly. Wasser checks it by squeezing baby powder into the air. “Sometimes, the whole boat is white from the baby powder,” he says.
Not only is Wasser often covered in baby power, he’s also often soaked. The crew periodically stops at islands so the dog can relieve himself. Because Tucker despises water, Wasser has to wade in and carry the dog to the island and then back to the boat, being careful to keep his paws dry. “I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve gotten completely drenched and he hasn’t,” Wasser says.
All this wading and baby powder and games of tug are paying off, however, as Wasser begins to piece together an answer to why the orcas died off. The samples show a drop in the thyroid hormone, which indicates that the whales are not getting enough to eat. He needs to run more tests on the scat he has as well as what he collects this summer before he can be certain. But, thanks to one damp black nose, Wasser may solve this mystery.
This article was originally published as "Waterwork"
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