work of dogs
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.


News: Guest Posts
Dog Carries Little Girl’s Oxygen Tank. Updated.
You gotta see this

Editor's note: Some very insightful comments from our readers has put this video in a better context. Take a look for yourself and then read that the great Bark readers have to say!

Three-year-old Alida Knoblock and her trusty service dog Mr. Gibbs are breaking new ground with their amazing partnership. You have to see it to believe it.

News: Guest Posts
Military Working Dog to be Reunited with his Former Partner
After a long battle, Corporal Megan Leavey adopts Sergeant Rex

At last, a happy ending for Megan Leavey, an injured ex-Marine who has been fighting for years to adopt the German Shepherd with whom she spent “every waking moment” during two terms in Iraq. Together, they patrolled for IEDs, weapons caches and suicide bombers. In 2006, Leavey suffered a traumatic brain injury in an explosion that also injured Rex, and he was by her side during the rehabilitation process.

After she retired from the Marine Corps in 2007, she attempted to adopt Rex, but at seven-years-old he still had several more years of military service ahead. At 10, he retired and Leavey renewed her efforts to bring him to live out his days with her in Valley Cottage, N.Y.

With no luck, until now.

Today, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) announced the Air Force had signed off on Leavey’s adoption request—largely thanks to Schumer’s intervention on her behalf and a 20,000-signature strong petition.

Don’t you just love it when the girl gets the dog?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
From Shelter Pup to Police Dog
N.Y. State trains homeless canines to join the police force

Recently, I was reading about a superstar police dog and discovered a really cool fact—about one-third of New York State's police dogs are rescues.

This particular German Shepherd, Sgt. Harry J. Wheeler, was found wandering the streets of Brooklyn eight years ago. Fortunately, he was taken in by Glen Wild Animal Rescue, which thought his keen perception and protective nature would make him a great police dog. Soon after Sgt. Wheeler was enrolled in a 20-week training course with the New York State Police canine division and now serves in Binghamton, N.Y.

During his years on the job, Sgt. Wheeler has helped find six bodies in police investigations, including locating the body of a missing boy that police had been unable to find for months. This find led to the murder suspect's conviction.

Training rescues to assist the police is a win for the homeless dogs, the police and the community. There's no question that Sgt. Wheeler is one talented pup, proving that shelter dogs really can do anything!

News: Guest Posts
Guide Dog Puppies in the Classroom
It's never too early to learn about these great dogs

My Seeing Eye dog and I visit elementary schools to teach kids about disabilities, service dogs and teamwork. During my talks with the kids, I explain three rules to keep in mind if you happen to see a guide dog with a harness on:

  • Don’t pet the dog
  • Don’t feed the dog.
  • Don’t call out the dog’s name.

The students at the school I visited recently seem nonplussed by these rules. They’d already read my children’s book Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound, and, more importantly, one of their teachers is raising a puppy for Leader Dogs for the Blind. She brings black Labrador Retriever puppy Rory to school with her every day. At home, she and her husband and their four children all volunteer their time, money and efforts to raise puppies, and once the pups are a year old they return them to Leader Dogs headquarters in Rochester, Mich., to begin intense training to become a guide.

Rory was already at school when his puppy raiser and her youngest son met me and my Seeing Eye dog, Whitney, at the train station. The little boy in the back seat admitted he cried when he said goodbye to Mack, their first pup.

“We all did,” his mom added. “But we know it’s all for a good cause.”

Policies and practices vary in the different guide dog programs in North America. Leader Dogs allows puppy raisers to name the dog they take home. (Mack was named for Michigan’s Mackinac Island, where this family first learned about Leader Dogs.) The Seeing Eye, where I train with my dogs, opts for naming puppies at birth to help keep track of them all.

Another difference: Seeing Eye grads don’t meet the families who raise their dogs as puppies. Leader Dogs has an “open adoption” policy, which got mixed reviews from the family raising Rory now. The mom enjoys keeping up with the man in Baltimore who is partnered with Mack, but her young son lamented that attending the Leader Dog graduation meant “having to say goodbye to Mack all over again.”

At school, the puppy-raiser/teacher got a kick out of watching my Seeing Eye dog Whitney turn her head left and right, scanning the environment as she led me through the school. “They don’t do that when they’re puppies,” she observed. “It’s so fun to see the finished product!” She wondered if Whitney might like to meet Rory. Whitney would have *loved* that, but she is so new to her job that I thought it might be prudent to keep her on a, ahem, short leash.

The two dogs did catch each other’s eye when Rory went out to “empty” during a lunch break. Rory barked out a greeting, but Whitney did not respond in kind. She sat up and her ears perked, but she stayed quiet, setting an example. After all, Rory is still learning. He’s just a pup, not a professional. Not yet, at least.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Guide Dog to Reach Hiking Record
Lab leads man up all New Hampshire's 4,000-foot mountains

Only 46 people have climbed all of New Hampshire’s 4,000-foot mountains, but this weekend Randy Pierce and his trusty Yellow Labrador, Quinn, will attempt to become the first blind person and guide dog to accomplish this formidable challenge. As if that wasn't already an incredible accomplishment, they will have finished this goal in a single winter.

Seven years ago, a disease rendered Randy blind and unable to walk. Confined to a wheelchair, it took Quinn to inspire Randy to overcome his disability. Eventually. Randy was able to walk again and, with Quinn's help, he started to hike mountains.

Now Quinn is nearing retirement age for a seeing eye dog and Randy decided to hike all 48 mountains this winter as their final big goal together. He is sharing his story online to raise awareness for his nonprofit, 2020 VisionQuest, which inspires people to reach beyond adversity and achieve their highest goals.

Randy and Quinn place a lot of trust in each other, and Quinn is one amazing dog to be able to guide Randy through the difficult mountain terrain. I love that their special relationship has allowed them to overcome a challenge that many people would consider impossible.

The team expects to finish the last mountain on Saturday. You can wish them good luck via their blog.

News: Guest Posts
Must Read: Wonder Dog
The miracle and mystery of service dogs

There was a wonderful story in The New York Times Magazine ("Wonder Dog," Feb. 2, 2012) this weekend about a Golden Retriever named Chancer and a boy with fetal alcohol syndrome named Iyal. The story focuses on a truly compelling frontier in service dog training and placement—where dogs work with people suffering from “invisible disabilities.”

Chancer was trained at 4 Paws Ability in Ohio, which has its own incredible story. Karen Shirk founded the organization in response to her need for a service dog, after a diagnosis of myasthenia gravis at 24 landed her on a ventilator. She has dedicated herself to providing service dogs to people, like her, who have traditionally been denied canine assistance.

It is inspiring to read about how Chancer has transformed Iyal’s life. The dog intercedes and comforts him during tantrums and even seems to anticipate and intervene in situations that might set him off. For the first time, Iyal can sleep through the night with Chancer at his side. He’s more articulate and able to think more logically than before.

Chancer’s ability to calm and comfort, to entertain and to act as an ambassador in the world are things all of us who share our lives with dogs—even those who aren’t specially trained—can recognize and appreciate.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Memorial Service for Survivor War Dog
Lucky honored after five tours of duty and three battles with cancer

The nation lost an amazing war dog last September. Lucky served in five tours of duty in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan. Even more incredible is the fact that the Belgian Malinois returned to work after successfully beating cancer not once, but twice. In 2010, Lucky received a Hometown Heroes award from the American Red Cross.

During Lucky’s fifth tour last summer, his handler discovered a new tumor on his rear left leg. The tumor grew quickly and, at age ten, Lucky finally succumbed to his third fight with cancer on September 30.

Earlier this month, the soldiers of the 92nd Security Forces Squadron gathered for a memorial service at Fairchild Air Force Base to honor Lucky.

According to squadron commander, Major Garon Shelton, Lucky had a reputation for being the hardest hitting dog at his station. He had a keen nose and kept cool under fire. Lucky was quick to identify explosives and take enemies down, saving countless service personnel over the years. He also provided protection for presidential visits.

Shelton noted that cancer was the “final and only battle he would lose.”

Hearing the members of the squadron talk about Lucky, you can tell that the soldiers have a special bond with their canine colleagues. Lucky was an inspirational dog with so much heart and courage. The other dogs based out of Fairchild will have some big shoes to fill!

Watch Lucky at work in a Spokesman-Review video from 2010:

Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
A Nose for Nature
Dogs help game wardens work

When she’s excited, Iris wags her whole body. Even the nylon tunnel can’t contain her delight. The black Lab disappears into the tunnel, and her joy becomes sound: slap, slap, slap, tail on tube. You’d never know it’s dark in there. Rusty, a smiling yellow Lab, and Ruger, a German Shepherd whose smile is hidden by the large toy in his mouth, can’t wait for whatever comes next. That turns out to be the arrival of Falco and his owner, Jason Rogers.

It’s a sunny but cool morning in Upper Lake, Calif., gateway to Mendocino National Forest, where California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) K-9 program supervisor Lynette Shimek is hosting a monthly training session. Finding a mussel in a boat bilge takes practice, especially when daily work in the field has revolved around other tasks—say, deer poaching.

A warden’s work can be unpredictable. To keep the dogs on their toes, the group often switches locations, but Shimek’s rural property, complete with barn and fields, is the base camp. All around, mysterious props hint of hard work disguised as serious fun: tunnels, ramps and wooden pallets; jars, balls, tugs, pails and climbing rigs. “You want to first teach them that it’s fun,” Shimek says.

No need to tell the dogs they are here to save the planet. Let them enjoy the scents of nature, the breeze with its hints of bear and deer. Or was it elk? These dogs know the difference.


How It Works

“I think any dog can be taught anything,” Shimek says. “It’s a matter of communicating with them.” That’s no small task when it comes to scent detection. A dog’s brain is closely hitched to the 220 million olfactory receptor cells in their noses. Humans, on the other hand, have about 5 million receptors, and this can make it a challenge for a person to understand how strong a dog’s sense of smell actually is, and how to harness it.

Shimek explains it this way. “A person sheds 40,000 skin cells [groups of which are called rafts] per minute. On each raft are odors. Each is individual to the person, and everyone has different types of sweat glands that give different odors. Then, think of all the different things you put on your skin daily—shampoos, soaps, deodorants, creams. There are compounds within odors.” And the odors themselves have a life, influenced by wind speed, temperature, time of day and terrain.


Training Day

Training doesn’t end with graduation. DFG’s certification standards require 16 hours of monthly maintenance training, and both agility and nose work are part of the practice session.

Hidden on Shimek’s property are animal scents encased in jars. For deer, hide material is often used, tucked into wooden pallets and a series of lockers. Odors travel, and working with lockers helps the dogs learn to pinpoint the source. More broadly, a search will entail what Shimek calls a “scent picture.” For example, one spent casing differs from 20 spent casings. A Seattle Police Department K-9 training document describes how a dog can decipher that hidden world. A person walking through an area, for example, leaves two types of evidence that make up the ground scent picture: airborne rafts and other debris that fall to the ground, and the disturbance of the earth from their steps. Each footfall alters the ground, prompting changes in soil chemistry and bacteria, which alerts the dog to a change from the surrounding area.

Once the dog locks onto a scent, he or she alerts the handler. In a passive alert, the dog remains quiet and indicates the find by sitting, standing or staring. An active alert, also called an aggressive alert, involves barking or scratching. If the odor is on ground, the dog lies down; if it’s somewhere above chest level, the dog sits. The dogs must discriminate among competing smells, and there are no rewards—treat, toy or a pat—for alerting on the wrong scent. “We don’t pay them for residual odors,” Shimek notes.

The teams also work on different kinds of footing to meet the challenges encountered in the field. Ramps and stairs teach them to be aware of their feet. People can see their feet and watch each step; dogs can’t. Obstacles—things the dogs go up, over, under and through—are also put to use. “Everything is in building blocks,” Shimek says. With tubes, for example, they start with straight ones and add culverts as the dog gains confidence. “When Iris goes in, we listen for the tail,” Shimek observes. Thump, thump, thump: she’s doing fine. As she exits, they watch her behavior. Smiling? Stressed?

Iris is also watching her handler, according to Shimek. “Dogs are masters of body language. They read the handler when the handler has no idea.” Her secret for turning out successful teams? Positive reinforcement, behavioral modification and building trust between handler and dog. She believes that when a dog fails to learn, it is always the handler’s fault. Even as the person is training the dog, “the dog is teaching the handler how they learn.”

DFG’s K-9 program has two types of trained dogs, both certified to detect specific odors. Dual-purpose teams locate people, apprehend suspects, and perform tracking or trailing duties. Detection teams focus on odors and evidence; illegally taken wildlife, invasive species, firearms, spent casings, and more. The dogs may be trained to track, but not contact suspects. Depending on their locations, teams are taught to detect bear, bear gallbladders, deer, fish, elk, abalone, waterfowl and squirrel. A minimum of five scents must be mastered to pass the academy.


An Urgent Problem

DFG’s K-9 program began in 2007. The agency estimates that one well-trained dog can save roughly 800 personnel hours per year. With 20 trained dogs on duty, they’re well on their way to meeting their 24-dog goal. Shimek’s current scent dog, a black Lab named Lance, certified with her in May, as did five other teams. Nearly 50 out of 58 counties in California have added K-9 support.

A shortage of wardens lends urgency to the K-9 program. In California, for example, there are 200 wardens for every 180,000 people, according to the HSUS. This is, they say, the lowest ratio “in any state or province in North America, and a number that has remained virtually unchanged since the 1950s.” In the documentary Endangered Species: California Fish & Game Wardens, filmmakers James and Andrew Swan spotlight the result of that shortage: organized crime has become involved in poaching, and a wildlife black market that generates more than $100 million annually has been created.

Poachers—who hunt in the off-season; take more fish or game than allowed; or illegally sell abalone, sturgeon, bears and many other species—put enormous pressure on wildlife. So do pollution, habitat destruction and the insidious practice of introducing non-native fish like northern pike and white bass into California's lakes and rivers.

In April 2011, HSUS created the California Anti-Poaching Action Network. Their objective is to address the warden shortage by mobilizing groups of community-based volunteers to closely follow poaching cases in their counties and encourage prosecutors and judges to deal with poachers in a meaningful way.


Habitats Under Siege

Poaching is not the only problem, however. The West’s rich variety of environments creates endless opportunities for invasive plants and animals, “alien species whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm, or harm to human health,” as defined by the National Invasive Species Council. The U.S. Geological Survey is also concerned about the effects of these interlopers, pointing out that exotic species “have altered physical processes related to fire and hydrology in a manner favoring their further expansion.”

Quagga and zebra mussels, hitchhikers that travel from the Baltic Sea to the U.S. in ships’ ballasts, are the top two offenders on the list of threats posed by invasive species. These rapidly reproducing mussels clog water-delivery pipes and devastate waterways. “Our department is the only state agency in the nation that is training dogs to detect mussels,” Shimek says. That training began in 2008, when Shimek took stock of the looming threat. So far, the state’s boat-inspection program has yet to put the dogs to work in any systematic way, relying instead on human inspectors. Still, the dogs are getting ready for deployment. In fact, K-9 invasive-species detection is a whole new arm of conservation.


The Friendly Factor

From the standpoint of agencies whose employees carry firearms, dogs are also helpful when it comes to public perception. Dogs’ popularity was among the justifications offered by Colonel Dabney Watts for adding a K-9 program to Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. The idea had been kicked around over the years but never got going, and Watts believed he had solid evidence of its usefulness with everything from agency branding to reducing employee hours in the field. “We sent a survey to 18 states” with K-9 programs, he told colleagues in an April 2011 presentation, “and got 14 very positive responses.”

Today, 24 wildlife agencies in the U.S. have K-9 units, Watts said. Their time has come. “There will be other uses for these dogs, non-traditional ones,” in the future, he added.

The nation’s first wildlife K-9 program began in New York in 1978 with the Department of Environmental Conservation K-9 program, and soon caught on in other states. At first, additional police dogs were assigned to the wildlife beat; then in the 1980s, sporting breeds were introduced, which, according to Watts, “helped gain widespread public acceptance for the use of dogs by wildlife agencies.”

About 35 percent of the work is public relations, he estimates—one reason Virginia chose three Labs for its program. The Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, which started its K-9 program in 2002, also uses even-tempered Labrador Retrievers.

In 2011, Idaho joined California and Kansas when the Idaho Department of Fish and Game added Pepper to its workforce. The Lab will help track poachers, assist in search and rescue, and promote conservation efforts by visiting schools and other groups. The program, which consists of only one team, is considered a trial. After five years, it will be evaluated to see how well it worked. If it succeeds, more Scent Detection K9 teams will be authorized for use throughout the state.

How do you train a fish and wildlife dog when you’re launching the first such program in the state? Like Virginia and Kansas, Idaho sent their dog and handler to Indiana, where the state’s Department of Natural Resources hosted a free training academy. Merely attending, however, is no guarantee of success. Of the three dogs Virginia sent, two flunked out in the first 10 days. Luckily, Kansas, with its well-seasoned K-9 program, brought backup dogs.


Come One, Come All

Though the work may be similar from state to state, there are also regional differences. Florida is rich in biodiversity—and wildlife crime—but not every state crawls with alligators. In southern California, dogs help conduct surveys of desert tortoises. One thing all wildlife agencies share is the desire for people-oriented dogs, fully socialized with humans and animals alike. Hence, most are companion dogs, pets of wardens who later join the K-9 team. For example, Ruger was Warden Bob Pera’s wife’s dog until the Shepherd decided he needed a job. “He started going to work with me every day,” Pera says.

When it comes to breed, the field is wide open. Mixed breeds are welcome and “pre-owned” dogs of every sort can find a job if they’ve got the knack. When DFG is planning to offer a detection academy, a request is put out to see who’s interested. Shimek then travels to interview candidates, and find out if they have a dog. Once they graduate from the six-week academy, the department purchases the warden’s dog for a dollar.

Several recent graduates were rescue dogs. They need not be spayed or neutered, though Shimek advocates sterilization. A series of tests is used to check for suitability for the work. “We want endurance and hunting drive,” she says, along with sociability and trainability. One test involves throwing a ball in a field or hiding balls in trees and seeing how long the dog will search for it. Highly focused canines do best.

As every trainer knows, shelters are filled with dogs with such intense drive; in fact, that drive is one of the reasons people abandon or relinquish their dogs.

Rusty and Jin are perfect examples. Rusty, a neutered male Lab mix who works in California’s El Dorado, Amador and Alpine counties, was once a shelter dog. When Warden Erick Elliot adopted him, he was uncontrollable. It’s hard to imagine that earlier dog in the energetic bounce of the happy animal with the toy in his mouth who circles Elliot, or fearlessly scales a set of metal stairs at Shimek’s canine playground. All he needed was someone to believe in and guide him. In the field, Rusty has located deer and bear carcasses, enabling Elliot to pinpoint exact kill sites.

When Shimek says, “It’s the dogs themselves who have taught me the most,” the first to come to mind is a female named Jin. “The worst dog I ever had the privilege of working with became one of the best detection dogs,” she says.

Jin had been through three homes in her first year of life, and wasn’t house trained. Plucked from a shelter by another warden, who brought her to Shimek, Jin taught Shimek valuable lessons. Such as: “dogs should never be punished for anything they do out of fear.” To rehabilitate her, Shimek had to essentially step back in time and begin working with her at the most basic level.

The first task was simply saving the emaciated creature. “When I got her, she was almost dead,” Shimek recalls. It took eight months to straighten out her digestive system. As gaunt as she was in 2008, Jin fought a leash (which she seemed to regard as a monster attached to her neck), jumped on everyone and barked constantly. One year and 15 pounds later, Jin passed her first detection test and now works in San Joaquin and Calaveras counties, with a handler who adores her.

As forces like climate change and habitat loss reshape the nation's wildlands, the job of Fish and Game dogs will continue to evolve. Scientists are exploring ways to tap their talents to meet the challenge, because each dog, regardless of their particular abilities or the obstacles they've overcome to pass the academy, comes equipped with a valuable natural resource. That is, a nose for nature.

News: Guest Posts
Beth Welcomes a New Seeing Eye Dog
And tackles the downside of a “smart bump”

You’d think having a new guide dog memorize routes and anticipate turns at corners would be the goal.

But it’s not.

Here’s how it’s supposed to work: I have the route memorized. I know how many streets we have to go forward before we turn left, then how many streets until we turn right again to get to our destination. Whitney, my new two-year-old Labrador/Golden Retriever cross, guides me through our apartment lobby, we get ourselves situated on the sidewalk in the direction I want us to go, I command, “forward!” and my spunky sprite guides me safely to the curb. When she stops, I stop. That’s how I know we’re at the intersection. That, and the sound of cars. Whitney waits as I listen for traffic, and when I deem it is safe, I command her to lead me right, left or forward.

Whitney has a smart bump. It shows. In our first week home in Chicago she had already started memorizing my route to the pool where I swim laps, the cultural center where I teach memoir-writing classes, and my cubicle at my part-time job in the Willis (formerly known as Sears) Tower.

These routes became so familiar to Whitney that she knew to make the turns without bothering to go all the way to the curb first or waiting for my command.

A near-miss in traffic with my last Seeing Eye dog, Harper, left him so afraid of traffic that he had to retire early. Our brush with that car, the months of work to encourage Harper past his fear, and the subsequent decision to retire him from guide work—it all shook me up, too.

Whitney’s decision to keep us away from the edge of the intersections, to just go ahead and make turns on her own, well, it meant I didn’t have to face the rush of traffic in front of us. I felt safe.

Until Whitney started crossing intersections diagonally, that is. Dang that smart bump! The girl is so clever that when she knew we’d be turning right or left once we crossed the street, she figured hey, why not save time? We’ll just go kitty-corner.<

Whitney had also taken to veering right and left long before our approach to any and all intersections, leaving us discombobulated as she anticipated a turn. And if there is one place you especially don’t want to feel discombobulated with a Seeing Eye dog, it’s the approach to an intersection.

As it so often goes with dog training, the problem was consistency. I expected Whitney to take me right to the edge of a curb if I wanted to keep going straight (or if we were on our way somewhere new and I needed to know we were at an intersection). But on a familiar route? I’d let her decide for herself.

The Seeing Eye to the rescue! A trainer flew to Chicago to give me tips on which commands to use to drive Whitney all the way to the edge of the curb—the way she’d been taught at The Seeing Eye school. He showed me how to use the leash to encourage her to the edge. “Heap on the praise when you get there,” he urged. “Then stay right there a little while before giving her the command. Make sure she knows that you want her to stop right there and wait for your command at every single intersection.”

And you know what? It’s working. It’s comforting to know exactly where we are before we cross a street. Since The Seeing Eye tune-up, we don’t veer right and left before intersections anymore. Whitney knows what I expect of her, and she’s determined to get us to the curb!

Things are much clearer when I’m in charge. Whitney seems to appreciate the consistency, too. The more we work together, the more we trust each other.

And best of all? She doesn’t cross intersections diagonally anymore!