Paula MacKay

Paula MacKay is a conservationist, author, and wildlife researcher.

Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Conservation Dogs Work for Wildlife
Canine skills put to work in aid of the world’s vulnerable species.

With her head slightly lowered and a telling wag of her tail, Briar—a German Shepherd of Czechoslovakian origin—cast an expectant glance in my direction. Her body language was loud and clear: She had found what we were looking for and congratulations were in order. Sure enough, hidden in the depths of the prickly scrub in front of Briar was a desert tortoise, the focus of our pilot study in southern California’s Mojave Desert. Imperiled by habitat loss and other anthropogenic effects, desert tortoises are of grave concern to conservation biologists, but their camouflaged presence is difficult to detect with the human eye.

In an attempt to find more tortoises, researchers are teaching new tricks to old friends who happen to have an uncanny sense of smell. Indeed, dogs are becoming an important asset to conservation efforts in myriad ways—from sniffing out wildlife to warding off predators that might otherwise meet their demise if involved in conflicts with people. While dogs have long been valued for their ability to benefit people, today’s “conservation dogs” are enhancing our ability to protect many wild species whose fate may largely depend on us.

The Nose Knows
Many roles played by conservation dogs are rooted in their detection skills, skills that have long been applied to searches for drugs, explosives, forensic evidence and other targets of human interest. In fact, according to Dr. Larry Myers, an olfaction expert at Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, humans have probably used canine companions for detection (as in tracking and bringing down game) for at least 12,000 years. Scientists are only beginning to understand the complexities of canine olfaction, but this much is clear: A large portion of a dog’s brain is directly related to smell, and those fuzzy snouts contain as many as 220 million olfactory receptor cells, compared to roughly 5 million receptors in the human nose. The end result is that we’re profoundly outclassed when it comes to detecting scent.

Canine detection capacity has recently been put to the task of curbing the illicit trade in wildlife and wildlife parts—a multibillion dollar industry that threatens African elephants, Asiatic black bears and many other species worldwide. Responding to this crisis, a handful of nations have trained dogs to detect wildlife contraband. In 2000, for example, the Korea Customs Service and the Animals Asia Foundation introduced a yellow Labrador Retriever named Simba, Asia’s first wildlife sniffer dog. During his two-year stint at South Korea’s Incheon Airport, Simba uncovered more than 80 stashes of bear bile and gall bladders (traditional Chinese medicinals), snakes, seal penises, and even four live baby monkeys.

Meanwhile, Ecuadorian detector dogs regularly search boats traveling back and forth from the Galapagos Islands, sniffing for smuggled shark fins (used in shark-fin soup) and sea cucumber; one successful “find” resulted in the confiscation of 1,537 shark fins. The Kenya Wildlife Service’s website notes that “the presence of sniffer dogs at airports is a powerful disincentive to potential ivory or rhino horn traffickers,” and the South Africa Police Service’s Border Collie, Tammy, has been so effective at finding smuggled abalone that she has her own German Shepherd bodyguard.

According to the wildlife trade watchdog group TRAFFIC, the US is the world’s largest consumer of wildlife products, many of which are imported illegally. In 1996, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) hired Mason (another yellow Lab) to detect wildlife contraband at border crossings in southern California. Mason had been trained to alert on live birds, reptiles and bear gall bladder, and was being trained on ivory at the time of his retirement in 2001. Unfortunately, Mason was not replaced. Sandy Cleava, a spokeswoman for the FWS’s Office of Law Enforcement, acknowledges that wildlife detection dogs “have the potential to be helpful, but we don’t have the resources to pursue a program at this time.” (By comparison, the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency currently employs 1,200 canine teams to detect drugs, explosives, chemicals, currency, agricultural products, and concealed humans at ports of entry and border patrol stations across the country.)

Scat Patrol
The detection dog’s ability to distinguish between complex odors has also captured the imagination of scientists studying wild animals in their natural habitat. While wildlife biologists have been dabbling in dogs for decades, recent methodological advances have brought the use of canine field assistants to new heights. In the late 1990s, Dr. Sam Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington, collaborated with veteran dog trainer Barbara Davenport (PackLeader Detector Dogs) and other colleagues to develop a systematic approach for using dogs to sniff out scat (wildlife feces). Because scat confirms an animal’s presence and provides a wealth of other biological information (DNA, hormones, parasites), researchers are keen to acquire it. Over the past few years, conservation detection dogs have been successfully used to locate scat from more than a dozen species. (Note: In our own study of bobcats, fishers and black bears in Vermont, two detection dogs located more than a thousand scat in one summer.)

Not surprisingly, detection dogs are in increasingly high demand for wildlife research, both for finding scat and live animals. Recognizing the potential for such dogs to advance science-driven conservation, in 2000, four biologists founded Working Dogs for Conservation—a Montana-based organization that works nationally and internationally to bring detection-dog services to wildlife field studies. Earlier this year, they helped train US Geological Survey dogs and handlers to search for bird-decimating brown tree snakes in Guam, while an existing partnership with Wildlife Conservation Society will take them to the rugged Idaho/Montana border to find grizzly, black bear, mountain lion and wolf scat. “I’d like to see the day when detection dogs are as accepted as other techniques in wildlife research,” says co-founder Aimee Hurt.

As more and more biologists express interest in using dogs, Hurt and her colleagues see a growing need for nationally recognized standards to assure quality control. “Researchers need to be able to count on a competent detection-dog team, as well as have reasonable expectations for what that team will be able to accomplish. Standards are likely the best means to that end.” (See “Conservation Dogs Down Under” sidebar.)

Strange Bedfellows
For some working conservation dogs, the job description extends well beyond their noses. Livestock guarding dogs, which have been used for millennia to protect livestock from predators in Europe and Asia, are assisting many of today’s farmers and ranchers in the US as well. With roughly two-thirds of our nation’s land put to some type of agricultural use, wildlands and grazing lands often have a common boundary, one that means little to bears and other large carnivores. When conflicts between livestock and predators occur, everyone loses. Livestock depredation is a financial and personal loss to ranchers, and tens of thousands of predators are killed annually as a result of real or perceived threats to livestock. An ounce of prevention goes a long way in such tragic scenarios—as does a 100-pound canine. Great Pyrenees, Akbash Dogs, Komondors and other burly guardian breeds (ironically, themselves descendents of wild carnivores) serve as a nonlethal form of predator control by living with livestock and driving away intruders.

“I got tired of people grabbing a gun to solve the problem,” says northern Wisconsin organic farmer Mary Falk. Falk has successfully used livestock guarding dogs to protect her sheep from predators for twelve years. Having first experimented with guard donkeys and llamas, she found that “the only thing that gave us satisfaction with predator control was dogs.” The Falk family’s 200-acre LoveTree Farmstead, which produces pasture-raised lamb and award-winning sheep cheese, shares its wild landscape with wolves, coyotes, black bears and the occasional cougar. With a half-dozen guardian dogs looking after her flock, Falk has no trouble sleeping at night—a radical change from the days when her sheep had to be penned next to the house for safe-keeping.

Encouraged by her positive experience, Falk began breeding livestock guarding dogs, viewing them as integral to both farming and carnivore conservation. Many others apparently share her view—in 2000, the USDA published a survey citing that 28 percent of US sheep producers enlist the help of guarding dogs in their operations. While there are plenty of case studies to support their efficacy, USDA expert Roger Woodruff says the best proof is in the pudding: “Lots of people are still using livestock guarding dogs.”

Good Dog for Bad Bears
One northern European hunting breed, the Karelian Bear Dog, has taken nonlethal predator control to the front lines. Bred in Finland for centuries, this robust black-and-white Spitz-type breed was traditionally used to tackle bears, lynx and other large game. In the early 1990s, US wildlife biologist Carrie Hunt decided to test the Karelian Bear Dog’s ursine zest as a tool for bear conservation. Through her work with the Wind River Bear Institute (WRBI), Hunt developed the “Partners-in-Life” program, which includes an innovative management technique called “bear shepherding.”

This technique uses Karelian Bear Dogs, aversive conditioning and positive reinforcement to teach bears to avoid situations that bring them into contact with humans. Assaulted by loud noise, pelted with harmless rubber bullets and beanbags, and chased by the barking dogs, “problem” bears learn that being around people isn’t worth the trouble. Bear shepherding also includes education on the human side of the equation: Wildlife managers and the general public are taught how to reduce conflicts with bears by altering their own behavior.

Over the past nine years, bear shepherding has prevented the needless destruction of many bears in the US, Canada and Japan. And, due to its safe and effective protocols, WRBI has never had a dog, bear or human injured during this activity, which occurs 200 to 300 times a year. In spite of its effectiveness and charismatic appeal, however, the Karelian Bear Dog is definitely NOT for the casual dog owner, Hunt is quick to point out. “This breed does not make for a good pet, as they were born to leave you to hunt,” she explains. “It takes many hours of training to produce a companion dog.”

While all conservation dogs require significant training, a mounting body of evidence suggests that they’re well worth the investment. Dogs embody a unique blend of intelligence, resilience and sensitivity, and a willingness to work with people who are committed to working with them. It will ultimately be up to us, of course, to dramatically reduce the ever-growing ecological footprint of humanity, and to learn how to live with wildness in a manner both graceful and compassionate. But how fortunate we are to have such loyal companions to help us along the way.


Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Scent of the Wild
Training detector dogs to help with wildlife conservation

When Cedar was a puppy, he had a habit for wolfing down patties. Not hamburger patties, mind you, which would have been perfectly appropriate behavior given his wild canid roots. A gentle Golden Retriever/Labrador cross, Cedar enjoyed his patties fresh from living cows—those who dropped their bounty on the Vermont farm we called home. No sooner would we head out on our morning walk across the hayfields when our little canine companion would make a beeline to breakfast at the nearest pile. Fortunately, this less-than-desirable habit went by the wayside once Cedar realized there were more cow patties in those fields than he could possibly consume in a lifetime.

Five years later, who would have thought that I would actually be rewarding Cedar for finding poop—or “scat,” as it is more delicately described by wildlife biologists? As part of my husband’s Ph.D. research on forest carnivores, Cedar has become one of a handful of detector dogs specializing in the location of wildlife scat. During the summer months, our family triad roams the rugged terrain of Vermont’s Green Mountains collecting fecal treasures from black bears, bobcats and fishers (imposing members of the weasel family). While this may not be the most romantic of pastimes, we hope to gain important insight into how such wide-ranging species are using the increasingly fragmented landscape of northern New England. Habitat fragmentation—the break-up of natural habitat by development and other human activities—can have a major impact on the distribution and well-being of carnivore populations, especially when roads are involved. Roads not only serve as barriers to wildlife movement and result in animals being hit by cars, but also provide access to people who may disturb or exploit vulnerable species.

The study of forest carnivores is notoriously challenging, because they are elusive, have large home ranges and are relatively rare. Consequently, carnivore biologists have traditionally relied on capturing and radio-collaring these animals to gather data on habitat use and movement patterns. While this method can provide valuable information, it is expensive, labor-intensive and potentially risky to the wildlife being monitored. Scat, on the other hand, allows researchers to literally get “up close and personal” at a safe distance—scat tells us volumes about an animal’s health and eating habits long after the individual is gone.

I first learned of scat-sniffing dogs at a conference presentation offered by Dr. Samuel Wasser, the University of Washington-based conservation biologist who developed the technique in the late 1990s. From his pioneering work analyzing reproductive and stress hormones in scat, Wasser knew this resource could reveal a wealth of information about wildlife. He was specifically interested in using scat for DNA analyses, and sought a systematic method for collecting feces in the field. “The idea was to find something that had a really good ability to locate samples without bias,” says Wasser, noting that males and females can differ in how visibly they deposit their droppings. Scat-sniffing dogs were his innovative solution.

As I sat in the audience, burnt out from one too many talks about the intrusive methods used to better understand beleaguered wildlife, I welcomed Wasser’s unconventional approach to studying animals without harassing them. Furthermore, I was immediately intrigued by the idea of employing the dog’s innate sense of smell to benefit non-invasive wildlife research. But the epiphany came when Wasser described the scat-sniffing dog’s raison d’être—the irresistible tennis ball-on-a-string used to reward the dog for a “find.” My husband and I turned to each other with “ah hah!” grins: “Cedar!”

Flashback to an early spring morning on Cape Cod. We’re strolling by a tennis court, and Cedar stops short opposite a huge pile of decaying leaves on the inside of the tennis-court fence. He won’t budge. Curious, we release him from his leash and he immediately runs through the open gate and into the court, plunging head-first into the heap and emerging with a tennis ball. Flash again to a winter evening’s walk in Vermont, where we’re perusing shop windows during the pre-Christmas rush. My husband feels resistance on the leash, and turns around to find Cedar sitting at the glass doorway of a darkened record store. Peering through the window, we sight an unmistakable, fuzzy green orb lying in the shadows not less than twenty feet away. Suffice it to say, this dog loves tennis balls.

Of course, many dogs have a passion for tennis balls, and not all have the stuff to be a scat-sniffer. Fortunately, Cedar met the other criteria as well. According to Washington trainer Barbara Davenport, the best candidates for this noble job are large, agile working breeds who have ample energy and drive to propel them through several miles of forest each day. In collaboration with Wasser, Davenport has trained more than a dozen scat-sniffing dogs to date—many of them narc dog drop-outs who thrive in wilder settings. These dogs are remarkably effective, detecting scat from grizzly and black bears, foxes, marten, cougars, black-footed ferrets and lynx in the western U.S. And the list of species continues to grow.

Summer 2002 marked the first time scat-sniffing dogs were used in the Northeast. Soon after snowmelt, Davenport brought her training protocol to Vermont, along with two canine recruits destined to join Cedar on what affectionately became known as the “pooh crew.” I’ll never forget meeting Pasha and Bob for the first time, as they emerged from their crates, tired after too many hours of cross-country travel. Pasha raced around in circles in true Belgian Malinois fashion, while Bob, a burly black and tan mix with a formidable but heartfelt presence, evoked the image of a Buddhist grizzly bear. “These are going to be our shining stars?” I thought to myself in a moment of panic. As it turned out, my concern was misguided. Bob and Pasha worked wonders in the field, with Bob regularly dragging his handler hundreds of meters to a crusty old bear plop.

Despite our many years of recreational hiking in Vermont, the trials of conducting field research with working dogs in these woods were not to be underestimated. Sweltering heat and thick humidity wear heavily on dogs and handlers alike, as do the relentless insects that relish such conditions. The prickly mess of undergrowth that characterizes regenerating young forests can make for tricky bushwacking, not to mention the difficulties of locating scats amidst this vegetation. Looking for scat seems to be either feast or famine; there are long stretches—sometimes an entire day—when the effort-to-reward ratio can be rather demoralizing. And dogs, like people, bring their own little quirks and limitations. Bob hates thunderstorms. Deer flies are the bane of Cedar’s existence (and mine, I must confess). Pasha has a weakness for porcupines. And of course, dogs will be dogs, and are naturally tempted by the chattering squirrel, the fleeing moose and the myriad smells that distinguish their wild and mysterious world from ours.

But to my surprise, the greatest challenges have been my internal struggles about working with my beloved Cedar. From the beginning, I was warned that Cedar’s transformation from pampered pet to scat-sniffing dog would not come without growing pains—if it came at all. Cedar was accustomed to tromping through the forest with the sole mission of enjoying himself, and foul-smelling feces were just part of the fun. Moreover, tennis balls were a dime a dozen in his life—now he was expected to work for one? What if he didn’t feel like it? What if he didn’t get it?

The answers to these seemingly straightforward questions continue to emerge in shades of gray. For example, Cedar excels at “problems,” the scat-induced scavenger hunts we lay out on the landscape to evaluate and hone his detection skills. He’s very enthusiastic about these endeavors, and savors a spirited game of tug with the tennis ball when he finds what he’s looking for. Things get a bit more complicated in the field, however. Last summer, Cedar located plenty of wild scats, but he tended to be lax about letting me know where they were. Ideally, Cedar pinpoints a scat, sits, and waits for his reward. In reality, he would often walk away from his find, throwing me a casual glance in the process. It was almost as though he thought I already knew it was there, so why should he go through the charade of sitting by it just to close the deal?

It’s difficult to describe the range of emotions I felt at these times. Frustration, worry, disappointment—was Cedar doing this on purpose or was he genuinely confused? Was he picking up on some subtle cue from me that I didn’t even know I was giving him? Round and round I went, trying to disentangle the complex strands of communication between dog and human. I wanted Cedar to work, and to play by the rules. I wanted him to find that goddamned stinky poop. Most of all, I wanted him to be happy, and feared that I was putting too much pressure on him. By the end of the summer, I was mentally and physically exhausted. And I think Cedar had had quite enough of those deer flies.

So what does all this mean for Cedar’s future as a scat-sniffing dog? As we approach our second field season, I’m reinvigorated and cautiously optimistic. We’ve been doing training exercises all winter, and Cedar seems more excited than ever about his quest for scat. He has mastered the “autosit,” and rarely walks away from test samples. Soon, a new pair of detector dogs will join our pack, and we’ll be off and sniffing in the woods again. I really hope Cedar can cut the mustard this year—but if he doesn’t, I’m going to have to face the facts. While we’re trying to use Cedar as a tool for science, he’s not an instrument that can be calibrated or programmed. Indeed, we all have the capacity for “failure” when measured against a preconceived notion of success—perhaps Cedar just doesn’t fit neatly into our agenda this time around. Regardless, he’ll walk by my side in the forest for the rest of his days, reminding me to take time out to smell the flowers. For this, he can have a tennis ball whenever he wants!