Quagga and zebra mussels, hitchhikers that travel from the Baltic Sea to the U.S. in ships’ ballasts, are the top two offenders on the list of threats posed by invasive species. These rapidly reproducing mussels clog water-delivery pipes and devastate waterways. “Our department is the only state agency in the nation that is training dogs to detect mussels,” Shimek says. That training began in 2008, when Shimek took stock of the looming threat. So far, the state’s boat-inspection program has yet to put the dogs to work in any systematic way, relying instead on human inspectors. Still, the dogs are getting ready for deployment. In fact, K-9 invasive-species detection is a whole new arm of conservation.
The Friendly Factor
From the standpoint of agencies whose employees carry firearms, dogs are also helpful when it comes to public perception. Dogs’ popularity was among the justifications offered by Colonel Dabney Watts for adding a K-9 program to Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. The idea had been kicked around over the years but never got going, and Watts believed he had solid evidence of its usefulness with everything from agency branding to reducing employee hours in the field. “We sent a survey to 18 states” with K-9 programs, he told colleagues in an April 2011 presentation, “and got 14 very positive responses.”
Today, 24 wildlife agencies in the U.S. have K-9 units, Watts said. Their time has come. “There will be other uses for these dogs, non-traditional ones,” in the future, he added.
The nation’s first wildlife K-9 program began in New York in 1978 with the Department of Environmental Conservation K-9 program, and soon caught on in other states. At first, additional police dogs were assigned to the wildlife beat; then in the 1980s, sporting breeds were introduced, which, according to Watts, “helped gain widespread public acceptance for the use of dogs by wildlife agencies.”
About 35 percent of the work is public relations, he estimates—one reason Virginia chose three Labs for its program. The Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, which started its K-9 program in 2002, also uses even-tempered Labrador Retrievers.
In 2011, Idaho joined California and Kansas when the Idaho Department of Fish and Game added Pepper to its workforce. The Lab will help track poachers, assist in search and rescue, and promote conservation efforts by visiting schools and other groups. The program, which consists of only one team, is considered a trial. After five years, it will be evaluated to see how well it worked. If it succeeds, more Scent Detection K9 teams will be authorized for use throughout the state.
How do you train a fish and wildlife dog when you’re launching the first such program in the state? Like Virginia and Kansas, Idaho sent their dog and handler to Indiana, where the state’s Department of Natural Resources hosted a free training academy. Merely attending, however, is no guarantee of success. Of the three dogs Virginia sent, two flunked out in the first 10 days. Luckily, Kansas, with its well-seasoned K-9 program, brought backup dogs.
Come One, Come All
Though the work may be similar from state to state, there are also regional differences. Florida is rich in biodiversity—and wildlife crime—but not every state crawls with alligators. In southern California, dogs help conduct surveys of desert tortoises. One thing all wildlife agencies share is the desire for people-oriented dogs, fully socialized with humans and animals alike. Hence, most are companion dogs, pets of wardens who later join the K-9 team. For example, Ruger was Warden Bob Pera’s wife’s dog until the Shepherd decided he needed a job. “He started going to work with me every day,” Pera says.
When it comes to breed, the field is wide open. Mixed breeds are welcome and “pre-owned” dogs of every sort can find a job if they’ve got the knack. When DFG is planning to offer a detection academy, a request is put out to see who’s interested. Shimek then travels to interview candidates, and find out if they have a dog. Once they graduate from the six-week academy, the department purchases the warden’s dog for a dollar.