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JoAnna Lou
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Dogs Sniff Poop for Environmental Studies
Biologists train rescue pups to help in wildlife surveys
Maggie, a Labrador Retriever mix, is trained to lie down when she finds target droppings (not eat it!).

Whether we like it or not, dogs seem to have an uncanny ability to seek out animal droppings. My Sheltie’s favorite is the goose waste left behind at the lakeside path we run on.

Believe it or not, this natural affinity for poop seeking is now being harnessed to help in scientific studies. Biologists at the University of California Berkley have trained dogs to detect animal droppings in order to conduct more accurate environmental surveys. 

Wildlife detection dogs have long been used in airports to detect smuggled exotics, but in recent years many of these working canines have been used to help scientists study endangered species and habitat loss.

While most people are trying to figure out how to get rid of animal waste, the information found in excrement is invaluable to scientists. Droppings are a non-invasive way to monitor an area and its animal population. The information in animal waste can be used to identify individuals and analyze hormone levels and diet.

The cool thing about the University of California’s program is that all of the dogs they use are rescues. The researchers say that the characteristics of a successful wildlife detection dog are often the very traits that cause their canines to be abandoned, like having a high energy level. 

The selection process is rigorous, as only one in every 200-300 dogs is considered a candidate. And only about 40 percent of those pups make the final cut. 

I also love that the training is done by positive reinforcement.  When the dogs locate the droppings of a target species, they are rewarded with a play session. The wildlife detection dog program certainly seems like a win-win for everyone!

 

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JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.

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