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.)
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.