work of dogs
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
[VIDEO] Writer/actress/“dog manager” Lorraine Goodman talks about dogs in showbiz
In our September issue, Lorraine Goodman gives us a behind-the-scenes look at Tiger, a rising dog star on the set of his first feature film. After putting a few dog years into last minute photo shoots (for everything from an Ikea catalog to Vogue), a national television commercial, and eight fruitless hours in David Letterman’s green room (bumped for the announcement about his girl troubles), the three-and-a-half year old Terrier mix got his big break earlier this summer. He went to work on The Son of No One, which “co-stars” such Hollywood luminaries as Al Pacino, Ray Liotta and Katie Holmes.Recently, Goodman talked to us (on camera, of course) about Tiger, who was “discovered” during a routine training outing in Central Park. An actress in her own right, with credits including a few seconds in The Departed, Goodman provides insider advice to Bark readers who think their dogs might be the next Benji.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Bear Dogs in Eco-Resort
Not many people commute to work on a boat. Even fewer can boast they travel to their job in a helicopter. But for Karma, boat trips and helicopter rides are all just a part of her job as a bear dog in the remote Canadian wilderness.
Karma is the first black Labrador to work at the Nimmo Bay Resort, a luxury helicopter adventure and fishing eco-resort on the coast of British Columbia. She and Oatie, an 11-year-old yellow Labrador, protect the guests and staff at this high-end resort when they’re out hiking in the woods or exploring the surrounding areas. The Nimmo Bay lodge is nestled in the Great Bear Rainforest, accessible only by helicopter or boat, so bear sightings are a frequent occurrence, especially during the fishing season, when they come down to the ocean and nearby river to feed.
Before life at Nimmo Bay, Karma had a rocky start; for the first two years of her life, she bounced from owner to owner. Then the resort’s owners adopted her and put her to work.
Though not your standard “bear dogs,” Karma and Oatie fulfill their roles with enthusiasm. On the trail, they race ahead, noses to the ground, then turn back when the coast is clear in order to check in with their hiking buddy. If they catch the scent of a bear, their body language changes dramatically; they stop, raise their hackles, and go ballistic with barking and growling. Oatie has even charged at some of the more stubborn bears and sent them on their way.
While the dogs are on the defensive when hiking, around the lodge they relax and become happy-go-lucky Labs again. They can often be seen perched in the front seat of a double kayak or balanced on the boards of a surf bike as they travel back and forth across Nimmo Bay, to and from trails and the tiny islands that dot the Broughton Archipelago area.
Last summer, Karma mastered the art of tightrope-walking the log booms that hold the floating lodge together, scaling them with a stick clenched between her teeth. She and Oatie enjoy daily baths in the glacier-plunge pool beneath the waterfall, and guests delight in throwing sticks off the floating wharf into the ocean for the dogs.
Karma and Oatie are best pals when on the job at the Nimmo Bay Resort—they even cuddle at night in their shared bed—but the off-season is another story. The two big dogs don’t do well when confined together in close living quarters with no wilderness to escape to during the day. And so, through a series of connections, Karma came to live with me in the city of Victoria on Vancouver Island.
City life took some adjusting to: Karma had rarely worn a collar, let alone been on a leash, which makes going out for a walk an adventure every time. She charges ahead of me, straining against the leash until she’s wheezing. When we reach an intersection, she barrels ahead, desperate to stay in the lead to look for bears.
When the beginning of the summer fishing season rolls around, Karma heads back to the Nimmo Bay Resort. Although it’s hard for me to say goodbye, I know that she’s living the ultimate in doggie life, out in the wilderness, collar-free, protecting others in one of the most beautiful and pristine places in the world.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Chile adopts groundbreaking victim-support program
“We need dogs like these in Chile,” said Seattle Police Department videographer Cesar Hidalgo-Landeros. It was 2007, and Cesar and I were in the middle of editing a training video about courthouse dogs, professionally trained canines who provide crime victims with emotional support during the investigation and prosecution stages. We had just watched a film clip of a five-year-old girl telling courthouse dog Stilson how she had been sexually abused.
At the time, I had concerns about the U.S. legal system embracing the idea of dogs participating in forensic interviews and appearing in the courtroom; I couldn’t imagine Chile being receptive to the idea. The deadline for our video production loomed, so we dropped the discussion and got back to work.
Two years later, my consulting partner, Celeste Walsen, DVM, and I gave a presentation on our “Courthouse Dogs” program at an Assistance Dogs International conference. One of the first questions came from a young woman in the back of the auditorium, who wanted to know if we could come to her country to tell people about this concept. Celeste and I love to travel, so I said, “Sure,” and then thought to ask where she lived. She said she was from Santiago, Chile.
Months went by, and I was caught up in my job as a deputy prosecuting attorney. Then came the invitation. The young woman whose request we had so casually accepted, Cecilia Marré, turned out to be the director of Chile’s Corporación Bocalán Confiar, and in June 2009, she wrote with a formal appeal for assistance. I rushed into Cesar’s studio and told him about Cecilia’s invitation. I also said that this remarkable coincidence meant that he had to travel with us. To persuade him, I added that his work with the Seattle Police Department might make the idea of using dogs with victims more acceptable to the law-enforcement officers who investigate these crimes. Cesar readily agreed to accompany us, and also offered to help with translating our presentations to Chilean government officials.
To prepare, I studied up on Chile’s criminal justice system, learning that the country had only recently adopted the adversarial model long utilized in the U.S., and that Chileans are passionate about implementing trial procedures that assure justice for everyone. In the meantime, Cesar entered a three-minute YouTube video, “Dogs in the Courthouse,” in a contest sponsored by the Washington State Bar Association to find the short film that best demonstrated a Northwest perspective on “Justice for All.” Cesar said that if he won, he would donate any prize money he received to Bocalán Confiar to help them promote a courthouse dogs program. In September, just two days before our departure for Chile, Cesar learned that he had won both the judges’ and the People’s Choice awards!
After a long flight, we arrived in Santiago and were greeted by customs dogs sniffing luggage for fruits and vegetables. To our surprise, these Labradors were working off-lead, with their handlers standing by, monitoring their behavior. As the dogs went about their business, they also accepted a few pats from the passengers. What a lovely introduction to the country this was.
Cecilia picked us up, and asked if we would be interested in seeing therapy dogs from Bocalán Confiar work with a physical therapist treating a disabled child. On our way to the facility, she told us that in Chile, veterinary students sometimes become certified dog handlers and assist physical therapists. We also learned that in some countries, the term “therapy dog” has a different meaning than it does in the U.S. In South America and Europe, for example, therapy dogs are what we call professionally trained assistance dogs.
When we arrived at the clinic, we saw Alejandra Santelices and her Labrador Retriever, Peseta, in a cheerful room, working with a physical therapist and a little girl. Peseta sat patiently across a table from the child, who had a bowl of dog kibble in front of her. She painstakingly dipped a spoon into the bowl, filled it with kibble and lifted it to Peseta’s mouth. She was delighted when Peseta ate delicately from the spoon.
Our next meetings were with the family-crime investigation unit of the Policía de Investigaciones de Chile (PDI) and Servicio Nacional de Menores (SENAME) of the Ministry of Justice, a child–sexual abuse treatment organization, to discuss their interest in implementing a courthouse dogs program. Two detectives picked us up, and we had an exciting ride through an assortment of neighborhoods to their headquarters. As we were escorted into the building, we saw a formal line of police officials waiting to greet us. Cesar had told us that in Chile, people air-kiss one another on the right cheek, but it was still a surprise to be greeted by these distinguished gentlemen this way.
Once the salutations were over, we made our first presentation to a group of about 10 high-ranking police officials. With Cesar and Cecilia acting as translators, we explained how professionally trained assistance dogs could help children and their families during the investigation and prosecution of sexual-assault crimes. It was very hard to read their expressions—we couldn’t tell if they thought we were brilliant, or crazy. But when Cesar broke out Seattle Police Department sweatshirts and hats, their demeanor changed, and we knew we had at least connected on that level.
Our meeting with the SENAME staff was entirely different. Here, forensic interviewers, a family court judge and therapeutic counselors made up the audience, and within minutes, it was clear they were ready to try anything to assist children and their families through this difficult process. We were told that there is a great deal of pressure to keep intrafamily sexual abuse secret, especially if reporting it meant that the father would be removed from the home. The mothers’ intentions are good, but they can easily become frustrated with the prolonged process. Not only are they usually unable to support their families by themselves, they see that their abused children begin to feel revictimized by having to repeatedly describe what happened to them. Cases were often dismissed for these reasons and, even worse, the children were not receiving the therapeutic counseling they needed to recover from their experiences. Maybe the dogs could make a difference.
To our delight, we were invited to a second meeting with the PDI investigators, one at which the entire staff was present. This time there were smiles, and the detectives were on their knees hugging the dog Cecilia had brought with her. Apparently, they thought we were more brilliant than crazy. In a leap of faith, the police had decided to work with Bocalán Confiar assistance dogs and SENAME to make a Chilean courthouse dogs program a reality. The deal was sealed when PDI detectives gave us souvenirs from their department to bring back to the United States. The following day, Santiago television stations and newspapers covered Chile’s decision to begin a courthouse dogs program. Suddenly, the issue of child sexual abuse was big news, and this innovative approach demonstrated that the government was willing to do all it could to address the problem.
What a lesson in humility! I had thought that Chileans were unlikely to be receptive to this idea, but not only were they interested, they established and funded a national program faster than has been done in our country. Now, we are lagging behind.
Recently, Teo Mariscal asked if we would be interested in helping him establish a similar program in Colombia. “Sure,” we said. “We love to travel!” Stay tuned…
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
It depends on what you want. Suppose you have a pet dog you love to death and want to do more with. Suppose your dog has “shepherd” or “sheepdog” in his name, maybe his breed is among the AKC “Herding Group”. Or maybe your dog is a “shepherd/mix” from the shelter.
If your dog is an AKC “Herding Group” purebred, it’s easy to find training and AKC “herding” trials. ASCA (the Australian Shepherd Club of America) lets more purebreds compete but If you’ve got a crossbred – or don’t know what your dog is, The American Herding Breeds Assn is your best bet.
At any of these events, you’ll meet people as crazy about their dogs as you are. You might earn a ribbon or initials after the dog’s name – if nothing tonier than “HCT” (Herding Capability Tested). These programs aren’t difficult and you and your dog will have a ball.
In fairness, I must warn you against traditional stockdog work and trials. Learning how to handle and train a sheepdog takes years. You’ll put miles on your car and your dog. You’ll be out in the foulest weather. You’ll need to understand not only your dog – no cinch – but sheep, cattle or goats too. Do you really want to be on a first name basis with a three hundred pound Suffolk ram?
All your most shameful mental qualities: your impatience, egotism, vagueness, vanity and inattention will be painfully and publicly obvious. Your dreams, fantasies and love for your dog will count for nothing. You won’t earn titles or championships. Ribbons and prize money will be rare and humiliations commonplace.
Welcome, sucker. If you’ve got this far, you’re probably too hard-headed to accept my most important advice: IF YOU WANT TO WORK A STOCKDOG BUY A TRAINED STOCKDOG. A started sheepdog (can fetch sheep, goes left or right on command and is starting to drive) will run you two grand, a trial winner as much as fifteen, a 9 or ten year old retired trial dog mightn’t cost more than a good home for him. Since you can buy the cutest sheepdog pup for five hundred, why spend the money?
Because in the long run, the high dollar dog is cheaper. Because you need training and THE TRAINED DOG TRAINS YOU.If you ain’t got the genes, you ain’t got no thing
Any dog can be useful on livestock: I’d lay my Labrador Retriever in a gateway to block sheep. But a few breeds have this powerful genetic urge to work stock. Alas, most dogs from the “Herding Group” are bred for dog shows and aren’t much more useful than my Labrador was Your best genetic bets are Border Collies, Kelpies, English Shepherds and Australian Shepherds – in that order. Shun show dogs and be deaf to breeder guff. If you don’t like the way mama works stock, don’t buy her pup.
You’ll need a plastic stick to extend your reach, a tie chain for your dog while he’s waiting to work, a leash, a collar with your dog’s id, and a 2$ plastic whistle which you won’t be able to blow although your kid will. You won’t need treats, halters, snootloops, clickers, choke, prong or ecollars.Your Sheepdog Guru
Stockwork often seems counter-intuitive and even with a trained dog nobody learns without a mentor. If you stick with AKC, ASCA and AHBA events, mentors are plentiful. T’were it me, I’d see my mentor’s dogs work before I signed up for his/her instruction.
If you’re determined to learn traditional stockwork, usbcha.com lists every sheep and cattle trial. Thats’ where you’ll find local, traditional trainers. After your pup is six months old, enroll him in your mentor’s sheepdog handler’s clinic.A BOOMING BUZZING CONFUSION
Your mentor will escort you and Shep into a small ring containing three or four docile sheep. You’ll unclip his lead and all hell will break loose. Shep will go after the sheep, the sheep will split and bolt, the mentor will be saying something as you’re praying that Shep won’t kill some wooly creature. SHEP WON”T LISTEN!!. HE’S ON ANOTHER PLANET!!!
That’s how everybody starts learning. Fun, huh?
Because it’s beautiful and because Shep will think it’s beautiful too. From the start you’ll have glimpses; momentary communication so intense, your and your dog’s mind will be one mind. Because one day you’ll be in difficulties and your dog will rescue you. Because one day last year I sent my Luke for sheep half a mile away, across three ridges; then down a steep backslope and Luke disappeared from sight for one minute, two minutes, three . . . four . . . and reappeared – so far out there he was a dot, but exactly where he needed to be. That tiny black dot was the most beautiful dog I’ve ever seen.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Hypoglycemia-detecting canines provide a safety net
Destiny, a small black Retriever, insistently nudged Breanne, her person, who was sleeping soundly. Over and over, she pushed her warm snout into Breanne’s face, finally jolting her into wakefulness with bristly whiskers and a wet tongue. Breanne has Type 1 diabetes, and Destiny alerted her to the fact that her blood sugar levels were plummeting into dangerous territory. This special pup represents the newest “breed” of service dogs, one who detects hypoglycemia and offers hope, freedom and better health to those with Type 1 diabetes.
Breanne Harris is a 22-year-old student at UC Davis and has lived with Type 1 diabetes since she was four. In those with Type 1 (sometimes called “juvenile”) diabetes, the pancreas doesn’t produce insulin, a hormone that regulates the conversion of glucose (blood sugar) into energy. Instead, the diabetic needs to obtain this vital substance from injections or an insulin pump. Type 1 diabetics walk a perilous tightrope as they juggle food and insulin, aiming for blood sugar readings of between 80 and 150, measured with a tiny, handheld glucose meter.
Many factors influence blood glucose levels. Too much—or not enough—insulin, food or exercise, as well as stress or illness, can easily upset the balance. Sometimes, in spite of the most diligent management, blood sugar runs dangerously high or low for no apparent reason, and this can have serious health consequences. Blood sugar that runs high over an extended period of time can damage vision, organs and limbs, so the diabetic tries to keep blood glucose as close to the “normal” range as possible. But vigilance can inadvertently lead to episodes of hypoglycemia, or “lows,” that result in unconsciousness, seizure, coma and even death; the lower the individual’s blood sugar goes, the less able he or she is to take the steps needed to raise it to a safe level.
Here’s where the hypoglycemia-detecting service dog can make a life-or-death difference. Dogs4Diabetics (D4D), a nonprofit organization based in Concord, Calif., is pioneering cutting-edge work with service dogs trained to alert their people or handlers to impending hypoglycemia. D4D founder Mark Ruefenacht first made the connection between dogs and diabetes eight years ago while training a puppy for Guide Dogs for the Blind.
One night, the puppy’s urgent whining awoke him. Mark, a diabetic, recognized the signs that his blood sugar was dropping rapidly. He also realized that the puppy had somehow detected the impending low. Trained in forensic metrology (the science of measurement), Mark began to explore the possibility of teaching dogs to detect low blood sugar. “We spent the next five years doing a lot of research to figure out how we could start a program,” he explains. “No medical instrument in the world can do what the dogs are doing with their noses.”
D4D dogs are generally career-change dogs from Guide Dogs for the Blind in nearby San Rafael, Calif. The dogs are highly trained by the time they arrive at D4D, and the intensive, specialized instruction they then receive, similar to the training for drug-detecting dogs, is customized to each dog’s learning strength. Without going into specific protocols, trainer Blancette Reynolds describes the “fluidity” that is essential to successful training: “Anything you do with any living creature is fluid, a work in progress. Sometimes I will modify my particular response to reinforce a particular behavior. And the criterion for each dog is a little different; for example, the bar is lower for a new dog.” The dogs’ training is so specific and comprehensive that they learn to expect a reward only after their handler or person has pulled out the glucose meter, tested his or her blood sugar, and gotten something to eat or drink. Only then do they receive that rewarding bit of kibble.
D4D dogs are trained to alert their handler when they detect a scent on the breath or in the sweat of someone whose blood glucose is dropping rapidly. The dogs can detect the scent from anyone nearby who might be “going low,” although they are trained to only alert their handler. The dogs graduate from the program when they can detect the scent with a 95 percent accuracy rate from across a room. Each dog alerts his handler with unique body language. After picking up the scent by snuffling loudly and inhaling as many telltale molecules as possible, Destiny alerts Harris by placing her paws on Harris’s lap or chest.
On Tuesday nights at D4D, dogs and their potential handlers test the waters with one another. People are focused and hopeful as they learn how to handle a dog and what to expect in public when accompanied by a service dog. Meanwhile, staff members are on the lookout for a special connection. “Many people are eager to be partnered with one of our dogs,” says director Carol Edwards. “But we don’t make placements according to a waiting list; instead, we pair up dogs and people when we see a special chemistry at work.” Once a match has been made, the dog and his handler work as a leashed-together pair 24 hours a day for up to two months. During this “umbilical period,” the dog learns to connect his person’s hypoglycemic scent with a reward. Reynolds explains, “It’s almost as if they are saying, I smell the scent. I’m going to let you know that I smell the scent, and then I’ll get treats!
At first, Harris didn’t believe that a dog could detect low blood sugar, but her skepticism vanished when she worked at a camp for diabetic children and accompanied a D4D dog on his midnight rounds. She became a believer when she watched the dog alert his handler to a sleeping child whose blood sugar reading was in the low 30s.
Just three weeks before the momentous night—the night when she didn’t wake up freezing in sweat-soaked linens—Harris brought Destiny home. Instead of ravenously raiding the refrigerator and experiencing the disorientation and emotional rollercoaster that accompanies midnight hypoglycemia, she simply lay in bed and drank a glass of juice. “It’s the best low I’ve ever had,” she confesses with a smile.
These days, Destiny accompanies Harris everywhere, wearing the blue vest that identifies her as a medical-alert service dog. Destiny’s presence in the car eliminates Harris’s concern about going low while driving, and in the classroom, Destiny sits by Harris’s side and gives her enough warning that she can grab a healthy snack without missing a moment of instruction. And at night, this faithful companion frees Harris to sleep soundly without the risks and fears of nighttime hypoglycemia.
The work at D4D holds promise for hundreds of thousands of Type 1 diabetics. For Mark and the other tireless volunteers at D4D, the bottom line is that these dogs relieve people of the fear of hypoglycemia, and they save lives. Most rewarding are the phone calls from parents who say, “The dog woke me up last night, and my child’s blood glucose was 40.”
Harris grew up with Lab mixes, and initially she looked forward to building a special relationship with her new dog; then she realized exactly how special that relationship would be: “When I first received Destiny, I was so excited to be able to care for a dog. This is really cool! I thought to myself. She depends on me for fun, for play, for food, for a good walk. But when she started to alert on me, it really struck home: I am the one who depends on her to literally save my life.” No glucose meter in the world can measure the depth of that bond.
Originally published as “An Immeasurable Bond.”
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"
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
How the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation saves lives
Cody was an uncontrollable puppy nobody wanted. But now, the spirited Golden Retriever is one of the most highly trained search dogs in the country. This is his amazing tale, the story of a rescued dog who is rescuing people. The nine-year-old Golden who nearly lost his life in a Wisconsin animal shelter is now part of an elite group of emergency workers specially trained to respond to disasters and find people buried alive. Cody’s tale, however, would undoubtedly have had a different and tragic ending if an organization called the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF), in Ventura County, Calif., hadn’t stepped in and taught him how to use his boundless energy to save lives.
“He is the luckiest dog in the world,” says handler Linda D’Orsi, a captain with the Chula Vista, Calif., fire department. “It could have been the end for him in the shelter in Wisconsin.” Cody lived with six different families before his first birthday. Each brought him back to the shelter because he had too much energy—they couldn’t control him. “He was a throwaway dog,” D’Orsi says. “He probably would have been put to sleep if someone hadn’t seen his potential.”
That someone was Dawn Christenson, a volunteer with Golden Retriever Rescue of Wisconsin (GRROW). She understood that Cody’s endless energy and strong play drive made him an excellent candidate for search-and-rescue work. “Cody was not your average Golden,” she says. “He was a Golden who needed a job.” But where would this feisty dog find one? The answer to that question was provided by SDF, which works exclusively with rescued dogs and trains them to find people who are lost or buried alive. Christenson contacted the organization about Cody, and her call saved his life. “The day after Dawn’s call, Cody was on a plane heading to the foundation’s training facility in Gilroy, Calif.,” explains D’Orsi.
Today, Cody and D’Orsi are one of 236 canine search-and-rescue teams in the country with advanced certification from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This certification, the pinnacle achievement for canine search teams, means that Cody and D’Orsi can respond to any disaster. Not a bad feat for a dog nobody wanted.
Tales like Cody’s aren’t unusual in SDF’s 14-year history. Since retired schoolteacher Wilma Melville founded the organization in 1996, she and her staff have worked with scores of dogs from shelters and breed rescue groups, turning them into highly trained search dogs. They’re dogs like Andy, another spirited Golden Retriever rescued by the same group that saved Cody. This energetic canine is trained to rescue people buried in the rubble of collapsed buildings—fitting and bittersweet, because Andy is named in honor of 25-year-old Andrea Haberman, a young woman killed during the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.
“What a tremendous honor it is for us to have Andy the dog named in honor of our Andrea,” says Andrea’s dad, Gordon Haberman of West Bend, Wis. “It’s one of the few positive things that I can point to out of this whole tragedy.” Haberman discovered the vital role search dogs play during disasters when he and his family scoured hospitals in New York City “hoping against hope” that Andrea was alive.
“We were standing outside St. Vincent’s Hospital,” he recalls. “It was eerily quiet; there were no injured coming in. All of a sudden, we heard sirens coming up the street. Our heads snapped, hoping it was someone coming out of the Trade Center.” The sirens, however, came from a truck carrying some of the dogs who had been searching for survivors at Ground Zero.
“Some of the dogs were injured,” Haberman says. “Many had burns on the pads of their feet. These dogs had searched tirelessly and without regard for their own safety.”
Haberman later made a donation to SDF, which helped cover the training costs for Andy and his handler, firefighter Russell Tao of the Chino Valley, Calif., Independent Fire District. “We’re very proud of Russ, Andy, the Search Dog Foundation and the good work they do,” Haberman says. “It’s important work. We know our Andrea would be intensely proud of this.”
Tao, who has worked as Andy’s partner since 2005, says Andrea’s memory is etched in his heart. “I hope Andy and I can do something really good one day to carry on Andrea’s legacy,” he says. “I feel a lot of responsibility as a handler, because if we search someplace and say nobody is there, then we’re not leaving anybody behind. On top of that, there’s the memory of this great young woman. And she and her family are always with us.”
Tao called the Habermans when he and Andy were deployed to hurricanes Gustav and Ike. “I told them we’re heading to the hurricanes and hopefully we’d be out there helping people.”
That same desire to help people—particularly those injured during a disaster or terrorist attack—was the motivating force behind Melville’s decision to establish the SDF. Her inspiration came when she and her dog Murphy responded to the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Okla.
“That bombing opened my eyes to the national need for certified canine search teams,” Melville says. “When that happened, there were only 15 of these teams in the nation.” Melville decided to fill the void. “I knew how to train a dog—I had a relationship with a trainer, and I knew if I put my mind to it, we could come up with a faster, better and more cost-effective way to do this.”
Back then, Melville says, it took a dog and handler about three to four years to become FEMA-certified. Her organization has slashed that time in half. Now, she says, “It takes six to eight months to train the dogs. The dogs are then assigned to their handlers, and it takes them about a year to get ready for the FEMA test. There’s no other organization that does what we do the way we do it. We give highly trained dogs to firefighters at no cost at all to them or their departments, and we stay with them throughout their careers.”
The foundation doesn’t receive government funds to cover the more than $10,000 required to train each team and provide lifetime care for the dog. As a nonprofit organization, the SDF pays those costs with donations from individuals and foundations. “We’ve actually been the leader in this field, and instrumental in greatly increasing the number of canine search teams out there,” Melville says.
The organization now has 69 search teams. The FEMA certification standard that many have is what sets these canine teams apart from others trained in water, avalanche, cadaver or wilderness search. And unlike other canines in public service, disaster search dogs must attain this certification to do their jobs.
FEMA Type One Advanced Certification is the highest level of urban search certification recognized in the U.S. To pass the advanced FEMA certification test, a dog must search two piles of rubble and find four to six victims. The dogs have only 20 minutes to complete this mission, and the testers try to distract them. For example, they may put food, live chickens or even cats in the piles of rubble. If the dogs become distracted, they fail the test.
“Our mission is to strengthen the disaster response in America,” Melville says. “It’s not that we do it all. We are one piece of the disaster network.” In recent years, SDF’s teams have deployed as first responders to urban emergencies across the board—including such crises as earthquakes, mudslides, hurricanes, building collapses, missing children, derailed trains and, of course, the 9/11 attacks.
“I’m proud of having come up with this organization,” Melville says. “I never started this by saying I’m going to change the way of doing disaster searches in this country. But people have watched our successful methods and emulated many of them.”
Melville isn’t resting on her laurels, though. The 75-year-old grandmother plans to open a national training center in California for handlers and dogs; SDF has secured 125 acres for the estimated $16 million facility. She also wants to expand SDF’s Bark Force, a group of volunteers who comb animal shelters for potential dogs. “If we can find the characteristics we’re looking for in a rescued dog, then we’re relieving the pet overpopulation problem. And we’re giving these high-energy dogs—who are difficult for most families to adopt—a job.”
Firefighters like D’Orsi and Tao applaud Melville’s commitment to them, to the dogs and to helping those in need. “This is a great opportunity to do good things, and that’s what those of us in the fire service want to do,” say Tao, who’s been a handler for nine years. “Andy has definitely found his calling in life.”
So has Cody, who recently took on a new role in canine disaster training. “He’s become like a mentor dog,” D’Orsi says. “He helps with training and works with the new handlers before they get their dogs. They get to work with Cody because you can’t ruin him by making a mistake or two. He knows the system so well.” It’s a remarkable transformation for the once-unruly puppy.
“Cody still has all that energy, but it’s now directed,” D’Orsi says. “He’s become comfortable in his own fur and found his niche in life. And while we don’t wish harm on anyone, we’d love to get out there and help more people. We’re ready to go.”
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Who you gonna call when geese overrun your golf course?
In a field across the road from Black Sheep Golf Club in Sugar Grove, Ill., thousands of geese make themselves at home. But should one of the birds dare to venture onto the club’s turf or into its airspace, it won’t be there long. A black Lab named Tug and his young pal, a yellow Lab called Buster, are standing by, just itching for a goose chase.
Black Sheep hasn’t always been goose-free. Tug’s owner, head golf pro Kevin Healy, remembers a day early in the 285-acre club’s history when so many geese flew overhead that they blocked the sun. Geese are drawn to turf-rich areas like parks and golf courses, and are voracious nibblers, capable of turning vast areas of grassy land into bare ground peppered with cat-scat-sized droppings. But what appeared to be a huge problem for the club looked like sport to Tug, who took it upon himself to permanently relocate the big birds.
While Healy worked with the construction crew building the course, Tug went to work chasing geese. In his early days, Tug logged about 10 miles of running a day, says Healy. “It’s amazing the endurance he had.” Still, Tug’s efforts often seemed futile. There were thousands of them and only one of him, and with their wings and webbed feet, the geese had more options for escape than Tug had for pursuit. He was the ultimate underdog. But, driven perhaps by a kind of instinct or simply a desire to help Healy, Tug was tireless.
Healy found Tug about ten years ago in a remote part of Florida where Healy’s family spends the winter; the dog was ambling along a road, lost and hungry. Healy gave him food and water and put him in his garage overnight to protect him from the wild pigs, bobcats and alligators that also call the area home. The next day, he took him to the local humane society and called every day thereafter to check on him. When no one claimed the dog, Healy adopted him. The vet told Healy he thought the pooch was a Lab, and about two years old.
Occasionally, signs of a hunting instinct surfaced in Tug—excitement at the sound of fireworks or gunfire and an interest in chasing critters—but no one expected him to hunt or to work. Tug settled happily into his new life as a family dog: hanging out with the kids, adding 40 pounds to his frame and taking up a sizeable portion of Healy’s son’s bed at night.
In the fall of 2000, when the family moved to the Chicago suburbs and Healy began work on the new golf course, Tug found his calling. “The days for Tug were just spent chasing these birds,” says Healy. At first, the geese simply flew to the other side of the golf course or took refuge in one of the ponds. But Tug wasn’t discouraged. In fact, he developed a few strategies of his own. He came up with a system of repeatedly jumping in and out of the water, targeting specific groups of geese with each leap and moving them into the narrow part of the pond. Once he had them cornered, he finished the job with a huge, satisfying splash, sending the flock into the air. “It was the most amazing thing I ever saw,” says Healy.
Though some people spend thousands of dollars to train a dog to chase away geese, Tug is entirely self-taught. It may have taken him three years to clear the course of geese and persuade them to take up residence elsewhere, but few geese-management approaches achieve Tug’s level of success—100 percent effective and 100 percent natural.
These days, Tug enjoys quieter endeavors, including following Healy around the course, stretching out under a tree to keep watch over the fairways and greens, and bringing up Buster, a young yellow Lab. He’s still full of life, though; he not only still enjoys a dash across the fairway to send the occasional goose packing, he takes his new mentoring responsibility seriously.
Buster, now about three, is catching on to Tug’s ways, but he has his own style—for example, he’s less discriminating, chasing after ducks as well as geese. And Buster loves water, whereas Tug won’t get wet without a reason.
Sprawled on the seat of Healy’s golf cart with Buster at his side, Tug looks as though he might be easing into semi-retirement. That is, until a goose squawks overhead. Then he and Buster are off.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Carrying crocodile meat or contraband tulip bulbs? Watch out for the Beagle Brigade!
Staring at the x-ray screen at Boston’s Logan International Airport, Tara Kennedy didn’t know what to think.
After circling and sniffing the suitcase in question, her dog, Lily, a six-year veteran of the US Customs and Border Protection’s Beagle Brigade, had confidently sat down—the signal that agricultural products were hidden within. However, the x-ray machine revealed nothing more than clothing, the usual personal effects and several boxes of legal cigars.
“Open it up,” Kennedy told the x-ray technician.
An initial search of the bag yielded only the items seen on-screen. But the cigar boxes turned out to have a secret. Each contained a row of cigar-shaped sausages, complete with decorative paper bands—tacky and probably tasty souvenirs that, unfortunately for their owner, would never leave the customs area.
It was a typical day for the Beagle and her handler at Logan’s international terminal, where two things are certain: When you sniff around someone’s suitcase, you never know what you’ll find inside—a butchered hog, crocodile meat, land snails, live pigeons. And if there is meat, produce or plants to be found, a Beagle’s nose trumps x-rays every time.
Although the term “detector dog” evokes the image of tough-looking German Shepherds searching for narcotics or bombs, sunny-tempered Beagles are equally important members of CBP’s canine team. Nationwide, Beagle Brigade teams patrol international airports, land border ports of entry and major international mail facilities, where they help inspectors seize about 75,000 prohibited agricultural products a year.
Agricultural Time Bombs
Together, CBP agriculture inspectors and their US Department of Agriculture counterparts intercept about 2 million agricultural products each year. The seized goods include more than 295,000 lots of unauthorized meat and animal byproducts that could carry diseases to poultry and livestock.
Kennedy says the Beagle Brigade refers to its watch list and only seizes meat “from areas that are known to carry disease in the particular type of meat we are seizing.” As an example, Jim Silverio, who works at Miami International Airport, describes a llama fetus his female Beagle, Q-T, found on a passenger from Peru. “It was some kind of religious article. But llamas can carry cattle diseases, and Peru does have foot and mouth disease, so it was confiscated.” Anyone who recalls the news footage of UK travelers scrubbing their shoes with bleach can understand this degree of caution. All confiscated meat is incinerated on site.
In addition, CBP agriculture inspectors and their USDA counterparts found nearly 55,000 exotic plant pests last fiscal year, including diseases and noxious weeds. Intercepted fruits and vegetables are checked for foreign pests and destroyed. Preserved insects and plant material are sent for further inspection and identification to USDA specialists.
“If you made a list of the 100 worst insect pests in the country right now, probably 99 of them have come from overseas,” says Robert Tracy, entomologist for the USDA’s inspection station in Linden, N.J. Al Falco, the officer in charge, agrees: “Japanese beetles, gypsy moths—all the common pests we are trying to control now—were originally exotic.” Tiny Mediterranean and Oriental fruit flies—found in fruit seized by the Beagle Brigade—multiply quickly, and they could decimate crops if they were to hitch a direct or connecting flight to Florida or California.
Also costing the nation hundreds of millions of dollars to control are diseases imported on plants, according to Martin Feinstein, a USDA plant pathologist at the Linden, N.J., facility. These include citrus canker, which has damaged citrus crops and residential plantings in many Florida counties after arriving from Asia, and sudden oak death, an exotic disease of oak and other woody species that has killed tens of thousands of oak and tanoak trees in California and threatens the US ecosystem wherever susceptible flora flourish.
Ambassadors and Unbiased Agents
“[Passengers usually] aren’t bringing in stuff maliciously,” says Kennedy. “They are doing it so they can go out in their backyard and pick fresh lemons. Or it’s a special kind of meat their grandmother likes. It’s hard to explain why we are taking away their products. It’s only a possibility that the meat contains a virus. It’s only a possibility that the mango has insects.”
Working with Beagles not only allows inspectors to clear passengers faster and with more accuracy, but it also keeps the process objective and free from profiling. “Let’s face it, I put everything on Lily,” says Kennedy. When people become angry about being searched, she explains, “I’m sorry, m’am or sir, I’m only doing what my dog is telling me to do.”
In fact, the Beagles’ secondary role as goodwill ambassadors was one reason they were chosen to work among travelers. In addition to the high food drive that makes them so trainable, and a hound’s predilection to follow their noses, Beagles are not the least bit intimidating.
“They’re small, cute. People want to touch them,” says Kennedy. “Most people think I’m walking my dog. They don’t notice my badge or uniform. They don’t even notice [Lily’s] uniform, which she wears to emphasize that she is a working dog.” Kennedy appreciates being able to work without adding stress to the terminal, which is hectic enough when hundreds of people are getting their bags among jostling baggage carts and whirring luggage carousels.
When Lily subtly sits by a traveler, Kennedy asks if they are carrying any fruit, meat, vegetables or plants—or if they have eaten anything during the flight that may have left a residual odor. Even if they deny having anything on them, Kennedy has learned to trust Lily.
“Show me,” Kennedy instructs Lily, and show her Lily does: quickly, but gently, striking the exact location of the smell with her paw. When a prohibited item is uncovered, Lily receives a food reward, while the passenger usually gets a warning and the item is taken away.
“I choose carefully who I fine,” Kennedy says, citing the time her former canine partner Casey found six plants sewn into the lining of a passenger’s jacket. “I [had] no hesitation fining someone who obviously knew that bringing in plants and soil was not allowed.”
Sometimes the scope of the intentional smuggling surprises even veteran CBP inspectors. In June 2004, Silverio stopped a passenger from Cuba when Q-T sat at the base of the woman’s motorized wheelchair.
“So I got down on the floor and looked, and I saw some things strapped underneath it,” recalls Silverio. “I questioned the woman, and she acted like she had no idea. I reached under and pulled out a black cloth bag. Inside, there were four plastic tubes, and I peeked in them and saw live birds. There ended up being five of those cloth bags, with a total of 39 birds,” he recalls. “I’d say half were already dead, and more died shortly after that from the stress of the travel.”
Under US law, imported birds must be placed in quarantine upon arrival as a safeguard against the numerous diseases they can carry. “Of course, right now, there is a lot of talk about the bird flu,” says Silverio. “There is also a lot of concern about diseases that would be harmful to the poultry industry, like Newcastle disease.”
An Education in Discrimination
“We also have the [gratitude] of Fish and Wildlife inspectors [for] the endangered live species that have been saved by our Beagles’ curious noses,” says Kennedy, whose Beagle partners have discovered live pigeons, parrots and even endangered Egyptian turtles that were eventually returned safely to their native country
Instinct may lead dogs to detect animals, but the Beagles’ agricultural finds require extensive and ongoing training on how to—and how not to—use their powerful noses. Beagles undergo 10 to 13 weeks of training at the National Detector Dog Training Center in Orlando, Fla., depending on whether they are intended to clear international travelers or vehicles, ships, containers and palletized materials. For the 40 to 46 teams the center trains each year, the center’s staff “may look at anywhere from five to 15 dogs to find one good candidate,” says Director Mike Smith.
Likely candidates—who must be between one and three years old and are not necessarily purebred—are often found in animal shelters, but also come from private owners and breeders. The right dog is outgoing, with a serious interest in food.
Dogs begin by learning to distinguish five key scents: mango, apple, citrus, pork and beef. The dogs receive food rewards for passively sitting when they locate target items hidden in loose cardboard boxes. As the Beagles’ skills improve, targets are placed in first soft, then hard suitcases and typical tourist items are added to the bags to simulate real airport situations.
“They start adding other foods commonly carried by passengers to make sure [the Beagles] are bypassing chocolate, candy, crackers, peanut butter,” says Kennedy. “Products like apricot shampoo and coconut hand creams are added, too, to make sure that the dog is being very specific about whether he smells a fresh mango or mango shampoo.”
Not every candidate will make the grade. “Some dogs are just not as intelligent as we had thought; their food drive may be really high, but they just can’t grasp what is requested of them,” says Smith. Other dogs cannot concentrate amidst the commotion of the typical work environment, or may turn out to have a preexisting medical condition, such as hip dysplasia, that will keep them from working comfortably. All dogs, whether retired or flunked, are found homes through the center’s popular adoption program.
Once on the job, Beagles spend four hours a week training “to keep them sharp” and work on any problem areas, according to Silverio. After six months, Beagles sniff out prohibited material correctly 80 percent of the time. Their success rate rises to about 90 percent with two years’ experience, and some Beagles have been known to recognize nearly 50 odors during their five- to seven-year careers.
And while spectacular beagle busts—such as pounds and pounds of fresh fruit—make for great photo opportunities, Kennedy says Lily’s most impressive find was a single chestnut.
“It’s one thing for Lily to find a bag of fresh chestnuts, but it’s another to find one chestnut in a pocket when someone has a winter coat on over it,” says Kennedy. “I think that’s much more significant to find one tiny smell when there are so many other smells floating around.”
This ability is what makes dogs much more effective than machines for odor detection, says Dr. Larry Myers, a professor of veterinary medicine at Alabama’s Auburn University and researcher at the school’s Institute for Biological Systems Detection.
“There are instruments that are certainly more sensitive than a dog is,” says Myers. “But dogs sample the air better, and they do it in what amounts to real-time. In a matter of a second or less, they can say, ‘Yep, it’s there.’”
The program may eventually expand its reach. The National Detector Dog Training Center has been experimenting with teaching Beagles to pinpoint specific agricultural hazards—such as invasive knapweed in rangelands, Asian longhorn beetles in palletized materials and citrus canker-infected plants within an orchard. With talent like that, the Beagle Brigade —hard-working hounds with curious noses—will not be disbanding any time soon!
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
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!
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