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Scent of the Wild
Training detector dogs to help with wildlife conservation
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When Cedar was a puppy, he had a habit for wolfing down patties. Not hamburger patties, mind you, which would have been perfectly appropriate behavior given his wild canid roots. A gentle Golden Retriever/Labrador cross, Cedar enjoyed his patties fresh from living cows—those who dropped their bounty on the Vermont farm we called home. No sooner would we head out on our morning walk across the hayfields when our little canine companion would make a beeline to breakfast at the nearest pile. Fortunately, this less-than-desirable habit went by the wayside once Cedar realized there were more cow patties in those fields than he could possibly consume in a lifetime.

Five years later, who would have thought that I would actually be rewarding Cedar for finding poop—or “scat,” as it is more delicately described by wildlife biologists? As part of my husband’s Ph.D. research on forest carnivores, Cedar has become one of a handful of detector dogs specializing in the location of wildlife scat. During the summer months, our family triad roams the rugged terrain of Vermont’s Green Mountains collecting fecal treasures from black bears, bobcats and fishers (imposing members of the weasel family). While this may not be the most romantic of pastimes, we hope to gain important insight into how such wide-ranging species are using the increasingly fragmented landscape of northern New England. Habitat fragmentation—the break-up of natural habitat by development and other human activities—can have a major impact on the distribution and well-being of carnivore populations, especially when roads are involved. Roads not only serve as barriers to wildlife movement and result in animals being hit by cars, but also provide access to people who may disturb or exploit vulnerable species.

The study of forest carnivores is notoriously challenging, because they are elusive, have large home ranges and are relatively rare. Consequently, carnivore biologists have traditionally relied on capturing and radio-collaring these animals to gather data on habitat use and movement patterns. While this method can provide valuable information, it is expensive, labor-intensive and potentially risky to the wildlife being monitored. Scat, on the other hand, allows researchers to literally get “up close and personal” at a safe distance—scat tells us volumes about an animal’s health and eating habits long after the individual is gone.

I first learned of scat-sniffing dogs at a conference presentation offered by Dr. Samuel Wasser, the University of Washington-based conservation biologist who developed the technique in the late 1990s. From his pioneering work analyzing reproductive and stress hormones in scat, Wasser knew this resource could reveal a wealth of information about wildlife. He was specifically interested in using scat for DNA analyses, and sought a systematic method for collecting feces in the field. “The idea was to find something that had a really good ability to locate samples without bias,” says Wasser, noting that males and females can differ in how visibly they deposit their droppings. Scat-sniffing dogs were his innovative solution.

As I sat in the audience, burnt out from one too many talks about the intrusive methods used to better understand beleaguered wildlife, I welcomed Wasser’s unconventional approach to studying animals without harassing them. Furthermore, I was immediately intrigued by the idea of employing the dog’s innate sense of smell to benefit non-invasive wildlife research. But the epiphany came when Wasser described the scat-sniffing dog’s raison d’être—the irresistible tennis ball-on-a-string used to reward the dog for a “find.” My husband and I turned to each other with “ah hah!” grins: “Cedar!”

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