On a calm winter morning in Three Forks State Park in Montana, I stand next to Alice Whitelaw and her truck. Three dogs crated in the back bark and yodel. Ten-year-old Camas, the most experienced tracker, moans the loudest.Whitelaw pops the latch, and out hops Camas, a fine-boned, dark German Shepherd. Though I stand close to her handler, she doesn’t even quiver a nostril in my direction. Camas focuses her bright brown eyes on Whitelaw, vibrating with excitement as Whitelaw straps her into her working vest. Camas is first up to give me a demonstration of what a conservation dog can do.
Before I arrived,Whitelaw planted bear scat (poop) in the brushy field in front of us. Camas is going to find three samples, using her nose. Camas is off-lead, and she and Whitelaw stand at the edge of the field and lock eyes for a second. She gathers herself, as though balancing at a starting gate.Whitelaw pulls out a ropeball toy and shows it to Camas.“Ready?” she asks. “Find it,” she says in a calm voice. Camas begins to run, nose to the ground.
Camas is one of a handful of dogs in the United States who works for science through Working Dogs for Conservation. The dogs scan wild terrain to find wildlife scat or hair, plants and even animals. The organization was founded by four biologists—Whitelaw, Aimee Hurt, Megan Parker and Deborah Smith—to provide scientists with a noninvasive, inexpensive but accurate way to count or study wildlife and plants.
Whitelaw worked as a wolf biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “I loved it. It’s great work, but it’s no secret that if you handle wild animals, at some point somebody’s gonna get hurt, and I’m talking about the animals.”“Capture and handling”is still considered one of the best ways to study and observe wildlife. Biologists set traps in the woods or dart wildlife from helicopters. Sometimes they drug and fit the animals with radio collars, then use receivers to locate the animals later and observe or count them.
Yet, capture and handling can be costly and difficult. Animals may detect traps and bypass them or, like wolves, dig them up and poop on them (gotcha!). Some animals fight the trap, expending terrific energy or injuring themselves.Wildlife in traps may hyperventilate, overheat or, very rarely, die of “capture myopathy,” heart failure from stress. They can also fall prey to other animals.
About 15 years ago, there was a shift in the wildlife field.Researchers figured out ways to collect and decode DNA from scat, hair or skin samples. “What if we could get information from scat without ever seeing the animal? We started thinking about using dogs. It seemed natural: loved dogs, loved working with them, loved being in the field with them,wondered if we could make this work,” says Whitelaw.
Whitelaw and her partners teamed up with trainers of narcotic-detection dogs. Together, they developed a protocol for training conservation dogs to help wildlife biologists do their jobs. Working Dogs for Conservation, a 501(c)(3) foundation, is one of only three organizations in the country that uses dogs for conservation detection.
Dogs have a leg up on humans as searchers and trackers. And it’s a rare dog who doesn’t love to sniff out, evaluate, roll in or coolly sprinkle over poop. Most dogs seem to consider the examination of scat as one of the major jobs of the day. There’s a difference, however, between a pet dog’s daily rounds and the focused work of a detection dog, who communicates with her handler about every single scat of the “target” species.
What motivates conservation dogs is not poop, but play.While Camas searches for scat the way any dog does, she does not relate to scat the way other dogs do. Camas equates material from the species she’s been trained to find with playing tug-of-war with Whitelaw. Whitelaw explains, “These dogs are not smelling every poop like most dogs do. They are out there working for the target scent that they’ve been trained to associate with their reward [their ball]. That’s all they’re doing. They’re not out there acting like dogs.” Most of them are toyobsessed— they’re the dogs you’ll see in shelters, bouncing off the walls. In fact, that’s how many conservation dogs have been discovered. The partners visit shelters, looking for the dog who won’t put down her toy for anything. Others are rescue dogs, and some come from breeders who specialize in detection dogs.