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Detection Dogs Sniffing for Snails

Detection dogs to the rescue in Hawai’i.
By Karen B. London PhD, September 2009, Updated June 2021
snail detection dogs

Invasive species can quickly decimate the native species of a region, but getting rid of the invaders can be challenging. In Hawai’i, the wolf snail has been linked to the decline and even the extinction of many species of snail that are endemic to (only occur in) Hawai’i. Wolf snails are on the top 100 “World’s Worst” invaders list, and eradicating them in our 50th state is a high priority among conservation groups. So, what’s the latest method for finding these wolf snails? Detection dogs, of course!

Working Dogs for Conservation has provided canine-human teams to track down these fast-moving (by snail standards, anyway) animals and hopefully to prevent their further spread. This organization is committed to advancing the training and use of canine-human teams for non-invasive conservation and management as well as non-invasive scientific inquiry. The snails invading Oahu present the kind of challenge that Working Dogs For Conservation can meet.

Canine-human teams, trained in their home region of Montana to the scent of the wolf snail, headed to Hawai’i for four weeks of work and troubleshooting with researchers. Picking up the scent of these snails in a wet tropical region proved challenging and this initial foray served to provide information they will use to design additional training techniques back in Montana and design the best system for detecting the snails.

Since then, in early 2019 Conservation Dogs of Hawai’i was launched to continue the program.


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To help position dogs as an asset to protecting Hawai’i’s plants and animals, Johnson officially launched Conservation Dogs of Hawai’i at the beginning of 2019. Since then, the nonprofit has been applying to work with state and federal environmental agencies to determine where detection dogs might be an effective tool for the government. One potential project she’s applied for includes surveying Johnston Atoll with a dog to determine if areas have been cleared of invasive yellow crazy ants, which pose a threat to seabirds, particularly chicks. Another involves searching out rosy wolfsnails, a predator of endemic Hawaiian snails. –

While dogs are well known for their ability to sniff out everything from bed bugs and illegal DVDs to criminals carrying cash and peanuts, it is not well known that every type of successful detection work requires creative thinking in every aspect of the process from training the dogs to the specifics of the search strategies. Each new challenge requires lots of work, patience, and sometimes even multiple trips to Hawai’i! Let’s hope these dogs and their humans are soon able to stop the spread of this snail before more precious species are lost forever.

Photo: Daniela Lopez/ The Bark

Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression. Karen writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about canine training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life