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A Nose for Nature

Dogs help game wardens work
By Sheila Pell, December 2011, Updated June 2021

When she’s excited, Iris wags her whole body. Even the nylon tunnel can’t contain her delight. The black Lab disappears into the tunnel, and her joy becomes sound: slap, slap, slap, tail on tube. You’d never know it’s dark in there. Rusty, a smiling yellow Lab, and Ruger, a German Shepherd whose smile is hidden by the large toy in his mouth, can’t wait for whatever comes next. That turns out to be the arrival of Falco and his owner, Jason Rogers.

It’s a sunny but cool morning in Upper Lake, Calif., gateway to Mendocino National Forest, where California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) K-9 program supervisor Lynette Shimek is hosting a monthly training session. Finding a mussel in a boat bilge takes practice, especially when daily work in the field has revolved around other tasks—say, deer poaching.

A warden’s work can be unpredictable. To keep the dogs on their toes, the group often switches locations, but Shimek’s rural property, complete with barn and fields, is the base camp. All around, mysterious props hint of hard work disguised as serious fun: tunnels, ramps and wooden pallets; jars, balls, tugs, pails and climbing rigs. “You want to first teach them that it’s fun,” Shimek says.

No need to tell the dogs they are here to save the planet. Let them enjoy the scents of nature, the breeze with its hints of bear and deer. Or was it elk? These dogs know the difference.


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How It Works

“I think any dog can be taught anything,” Shimek says. “It’s a matter of communicating with them.” That’s no small task when it comes to scent detection. A dog’s brain is closely hitched to the 220 million olfactory receptor cells in their noses. Humans, on the other hand, have about 5 million receptors, and this can make it a challenge for a person to understand how strong a dog’s sense of smell actually is, and how to harness it.

Shimek explains it this way. “A person sheds 40,000 skin cells [groups of which are called rafts] per minute. On each raft are odors. Each is individual to the person, and everyone has different types of sweat glands that give different odors. Then, think of all the different things you put on your skin daily—shampoos, soaps, deodorants, creams. There are compounds within odors.” And the odors themselves have a life, influenced by wind speed, temperature, time of day and terrain.


Training Day

Training doesn’t end with graduation. DFG’s certification standards require 16 hours of monthly maintenance training, and both agility and nose work are part of the practice session.

Hidden on Shimek’s property are animal scents encased in jars. For deer, hide material is often used, tucked into wooden pallets and a series of lockers. Odors travel, and working with lockers helps the dogs learn to pinpoint the source. More broadly, a search will entail what Shimek calls a “scent picture.” For example, one spent casing differs from 20 spent casings. A Seattle Police Department K-9 training document describes how a dog can decipher that hidden world. A person walking through an area, for example, leaves two types of evidence that make up the ground scent picture: airborne rafts and other debris that fall to the ground, and the disturbance of the earth from their steps. Each footfall alters the ground, prompting changes in soil chemistry and bacteria, which alerts the dog to a change from the surrounding area.

Once the dog locks onto a scent, he or she alerts the handler. In a passive alert, the dog remains quiet and indicates the find by sitting, standing or staring. An active alert, also called an aggressive alert, involves barking or scratching. If the odor is on ground, the dog lies down; if it’s somewhere above chest level, the dog sits. The dogs must discriminate among competing smells, and there are no rewards—treat, toy or a pat—for alerting on the wrong scent. “We don’t pay them for residual odors,” Shimek notes.

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.”

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.

Several recent graduates were rescue dogs. They need not be spayed or neutered, though Shimek advocates sterilization. A series of tests is used to check for suitability for the work. “We want endurance and hunting drive,” she says, along with sociability and trainability. One test involves throwing a ball in a field or hiding balls in trees and seeing how long the dog will search for it. Highly focused canines do best.

As every trainer knows, shelters are filled with dogs with such intense drive; in fact, that drive is one of the reasons people abandon or relinquish their dogs.

Rusty and Jin are perfect examples. Rusty, a neutered male Lab mix who works in California’s El Dorado, Amador and Alpine counties, was once a shelter dog. When Warden Erick Elliot adopted him, he was uncontrollable. It’s hard to imagine that earlier dog in the energetic bounce of the happy animal with the toy in his mouth who circles Elliot, or fearlessly scales a set of metal stairs at Shimek’s canine playground. All he needed was someone to believe in and guide him. In the field, Rusty has located deer and bear carcasses, enabling Elliot to pinpoint exact kill sites.

When Shimek says, “It’s the dogs themselves who have taught me the most,” the first to come to mind is a female named Jin. “The worst dog I ever had the privilege of working with became one of the best detection dogs,” she says.

Jin had been through three homes in her first year of life, and wasn’t house trained. Plucked from a shelter by another warden, who brought her to Shimek, Jin taught Shimek valuable lessons. Such as: “dogs should never be punished for anything they do out of fear.” To rehabilitate her, Shimek had to essentially step back in time and begin working with her at the most basic level.

The first task was simply saving the emaciated creature. “When I got her, she was almost dead,” Shimek recalls. It took eight months to straighten out her digestive system. As gaunt as she was in 2008, Jin fought a leash (which she seemed to regard as a monster attached to her neck), jumped on everyone and barked constantly. One year and 15 pounds later, Jin passed her first detection test and now works in San Joaquin and Calaveras counties, with a handler who adores her.

As forces like climate change and habitat loss reshape the nation's wildlands, the job of Fish and Game dogs will continue to evolve. Scientists are exploring ways to tap their talents to meet the challenge, because each dog, regardless of their particular abilities or the obstacles they've overcome to pass the academy, comes equipped with a valuable natural resource. That is, a nose for nature.

Photographs by Derek Pell

Sheila Pell is a freelance journalist who frequently writes about environmental issues. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Modern Farmer, San Diego Reader, The Bark, and American Forests. She lives in northern California with her husband and two large dogs.