This morning, conservation veteran Camas is engrossed in her job, rushing through the dried grass with her nose above the ground, zigzagging on an imaginary line in front of Whitelaw. Once Camas has found her target, she’s trained to look at the scat, thrust her nose toward it without touching it, sit next to it and then make eye contact with Whitelaw. This series of movements is called an “alert.”
Camas is a generalist; she can identify 13 species, including kit fox,wolf, cougar, grizzly bear, black bear, desert tortoise, and several invasive and rare plants. This lowland state park is a good place for a demonstration of finding grizzly scat because the bears don’t live in this habitat. The scat samples Whitelaw has planted should pop out at Camas.
Generalist dogs like Camas can’t turn off their training. She’ll alert on any and all of the species she knows, wherever she finds them. In the Montana mountains, Camas is asked to search for grizzly, black bear, cougar and wolf all at once.
Working Dogs for Conservation’s dog/ handler teams have helped study animals all over the globe, including Amur tigers, African wild dogs, and snails in Hawaii. Closer to home, Camas and Whitelaw work in Montana’s Centennial Mountains on a predator-connectivity study. Jon Beckmann, the lead researcher, studies the ways in which many grizzlies, black bears, wolves and cougars live in and use the mountains as a link to other habitats. Beckmann’s data, gathered in part by the dogs, have contributed to several land management decisions that have protected the predators and their migration corridors.
“The dogs have allowed us to study a whole suite of carnivores simultaneously in a really rugged landscape, where it’s difficult to trap animals.”Beckmann adds that he’s learned not to doubt the dogs. “In five years, the dogs have had 98.6 percent accuracy over 1,000 data points,” says Beckmann.
Camas pauses, pokes her nose toward something on the ground and looks at Whitelaw.“Show me,” says Whitelaw. The dog steps to the patty, pokes her nose toward it, sits, then stares at Whitelaw. Whitelaw whips the ball end of the pulltoy into Camas’s mouth and her voice travels high up into a sunny range.“What a good girl! What a dog!”
Finding the Right Dogs
Only a very special dog can be taught not to treat poop like poop.“Out of every 300 dogs we test,”Whitelaw says, “only one even looks like a candidate. And out of these, 60 percent fail.” Primarily,Whitelaw says, the dogs need “the drive and nerve strength” to do the work.
Drive gets the dogs through repetitive, sometimes grueling training and searches. The dogs must be crazy for their rewards, ignoring distractions. “Play has to be a big enough deal,” says Aimee Hurt, “so that searching wouldn’t be enough. If a dog liked searching more than the toy, that’s a problem, because it cuts down on the dog’s need to communicate with you.”
Nerve strength is crucial because the dogs work in the wild. It’s one thing to ask a dog to find a bomb in a human environment like a building or airport; it’s another to teach a dog whose focus is on reading poop to ignore the messages that poop is sending. A conservation dog overrides what he knows about the animal whose scat he’s sniffing.Wolves, for instance, treat other canids as competition and may try to kill them. Not surprisingly, some dogs react to wolf scat.
“They pee on it, get their hackles up and walk around it in a creeped-out way, or won’t go into it at all.” If a dog is too nervous around wild scat, he won’t make the cut. (Whitelaw and her partners have been known to fall in love with some dropouts and keep them as pets.)
Even an accomplished tracker like Whitelaw’s male dog,Tsavo, occasionally balks when scat wafts a territorial warning.“ He’ll identify all kinds of wolf scat, but there are a couple of instances where we’ve come across a great big pile of what I’m assuming is alpha male wolf scat and he’ll alert from a distance.” Whitelaw adds,“A handler has to know how to read that individual dog in order to work him at his peak. Every dog is different.”