“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.”
Working Dogs for Conservation handlers own and live with their detection dogs. “The dog is your work partner,” says Whitelaw. “Having something go wrong with that dog is really hard. And retiring a dog? It’s like, ‘I don’t want you to be done yet!’With my older female [Camas], we have this great relationship in the field.” The foundation’s Dog Life program acknowledges this bond, ensuring the dogs’ lifelong care and enrichment at home, even in retirement.
At first, the dogs play hide-and-seek and games with their handlers.Handlers downplay manners. “You want as wild an animal as you can get.We want the dog to be very independent—listening, but not in the obedience sense.”At about one year old, the dog is ready for search training.Whitelaw sets up a row of cinder blocks with holes in them. Into one she inserts a glass jar with something stinky, like hair gel. “When the dog gets to the hot block, the ball appears out of nowhere.” (She drops it from under her arm.) Each time the dog stops and notices the scent, the handler throws a toy or plays tug-of-war.
Once a dog makes the link routinely, he’s taught a formal alert. There are many steps and pitfalls on the way to field readiness, which generally takes four months for conservation dogs, a longer training period than for most detection dogs.And in the end, training alone does not make a conservation detection dog. The dogs have to have a “willingness to cooperate,” says Whitelaw. “No amount of training’s going to make a dog do something like this.”
One day, I observed as Whitelaw and Hurt introduced their dogs to a new scent: moose scat. They were back at the cinder blocks, working with Camas and Wicket in Whitelaw’s garage.Wicket, a bouncy Lab mix, sometimes got so excited when she found the target that she’d drop into her alert on top of a nearby cinder block, perching uncomfortably as she beamed at Hurt.
By noon, Hurt, Wicket and I were pressed against the wall as Camas ran her final trial. She punched her nose into one block and neatly sat, eyes on Whitelaw. She’d located the target scat and this time, after tugging and hallooing, Whitelaw let Camas carry her rope-ball.
She stepped over to us, showing off her toy. Then, after greeting Hurt, for the first time since I’d met her, Camas looked up at me, glance expansive, lips drawn back as though smiling. She reminded me of a prime athlete, chatting up the spectators after winning. Look, my toy. She waggled her head just a bit. I got it because I did well. Whitelaw had instructed me not to engage with Camas or her toys, even if she offered them.Yet, the dog waited for acknowledgement. I touched her head lightly, “Yes, you did well. You did!” She grinned and turned abruptly, seeking out Whitelaw’s eyes, ready for whatever her partner might want from her.