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.”