Work of Dogs
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Scent of the Wild

Flashback to an early spring morning on Cape Cod. We’re strolling by a tennis court, and Cedar stops short opposite a huge pile of decaying leaves on the inside of the tennis-court fence. He won’t budge. Curious, we release him from his leash and he immediately runs through the open gate and into the court, plunging head-first into the heap and emerging with a tennis ball. Flash again to a winter evening’s walk in Vermont, where we’re perusing shop windows during the pre-Christmas rush. My husband feels resistance on the leash, and turns around to find Cedar sitting at the glass doorway of a darkened record store. Peering through the window, we sight an unmistakable, fuzzy green orb lying in the shadows not less than twenty feet away. Suffice it to say, this dog loves tennis balls.

Of course, many dogs have a passion for tennis balls, and not all have the stuff to be a scat-sniffer. Fortunately, Cedar met the other criteria as well. According to Washington trainer Barbara Davenport, the best candidates for this noble job are large, agile working breeds who have ample energy and drive to propel them through several miles of forest each day. In collaboration with Wasser, Davenport has trained more than a dozen scat-sniffing dogs to date—many of them narc dog drop-outs who thrive in wilder settings. These dogs are remarkably effective, detecting scat from grizzly and black bears, foxes, marten, cougars, black-footed ferrets and lynx in the western U.S. And the list of species continues to grow.

Summer 2002 marked the first time scat-sniffing dogs were used in the Northeast. Soon after snowmelt, Davenport brought her training protocol to Vermont, along with two canine recruits destined to join Cedar on what affectionately became known as the “pooh crew.” I’ll never forget meeting Pasha and Bob for the first time, as they emerged from their crates, tired after too many hours of cross-country travel. Pasha raced around in circles in true Belgian Malinois fashion, while Bob, a burly black and tan mix with a formidable but heartfelt presence, evoked the image of a Buddhist grizzly bear. “These are going to be our shining stars?” I thought to myself in a moment of panic. As it turned out, my concern was misguided. Bob and Pasha worked wonders in the field, with Bob regularly dragging his handler hundreds of meters to a crusty old bear plop.

Despite our many years of recreational hiking in Vermont, the trials of conducting field research with working dogs in these woods were not to be underestimated. Sweltering heat and thick humidity wear heavily on dogs and handlers alike, as do the relentless insects that relish such conditions. The prickly mess of undergrowth that characterizes regenerating young forests can make for tricky bushwacking, not to mention the difficulties of locating scats amidst this vegetation. Looking for scat seems to be either feast or famine; there are long stretches—sometimes an entire day—when the effort-to-reward ratio can be rather demoralizing. And dogs, like people, bring their own little quirks and limitations. Bob hates thunderstorms. Deer flies are the bane of Cedar’s existence (and mine, I must confess). Pasha has a weakness for porcupines. And of course, dogs will be dogs, and are naturally tempted by the chattering squirrel, the fleeing moose and the myriad smells that distinguish their wild and mysterious world from ours.

But to my surprise, the greatest challenges have been my internal struggles about working with my beloved Cedar. From the beginning, I was warned that Cedar’s transformation from pampered pet to scat-sniffing dog would not come without growing pains—if it came at all. Cedar was accustomed to tromping through the forest with the sole mission of enjoying himself, and foul-smelling feces were just part of the fun. Moreover, tennis balls were a dime a dozen in his life—now he was expected to work for one? What if he didn’t feel like it? What if he didn’t get it?

Paula MacKay is a conservationist, author, and wildlife researcher.

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