Scent of the Wild

Training detector dogs to help with wildlife conservation
By Paula MacKay, June 2009

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!”

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?

The answers to these seemingly straightforward questions continue to emerge in shades of gray. For example, Cedar excels at “problems,” the scat-induced scavenger hunts we lay out on the landscape to evaluate and hone his detection skills. He’s very enthusiastic about these endeavors, and savors a spirited game of tug with the tennis ball when he finds what he’s looking for. Things get a bit more complicated in the field, however. Last summer, Cedar located plenty of wild scats, but he tended to be lax about letting me know where they were. Ideally, Cedar pinpoints a scat, sits, and waits for his reward. In reality, he would often walk away from his find, throwing me a casual glance in the process. It was almost as though he thought I already knew it was there, so why should he go through the charade of sitting by it just to close the deal?

It’s difficult to describe the range of emotions I felt at these times. Frustration, worry, disappointment—was Cedar doing this on purpose or was he genuinely confused? Was he picking up on some subtle cue from me that I didn’t even know I was giving him? Round and round I went, trying to disentangle the complex strands of communication between dog and human. I wanted Cedar to work, and to play by the rules. I wanted him to find that goddamned stinky poop. Most of all, I wanted him to be happy, and feared that I was putting too much pressure on him. By the end of the summer, I was mentally and physically exhausted. And I think Cedar had had quite enough of those deer flies.

So what does all this mean for Cedar’s future as a scat-sniffing dog? As we approach our second field season, I’m reinvigorated and cautiously optimistic. We’ve been doing training exercises all winter, and Cedar seems more excited than ever about his quest for scat. He has mastered the “autosit,” and rarely walks away from test samples. Soon, a new pair of detector dogs will join our pack, and we’ll be off and sniffing in the woods again. I really hope Cedar can cut the mustard this year—but if he doesn’t, I’m going to have to face the facts. While we’re trying to use Cedar as a tool for science, he’s not an instrument that can be calibrated or programmed. Indeed, we all have the capacity for “failure” when measured against a preconceived notion of success—perhaps Cedar just doesn’t fit neatly into our agenda this time around. Regardless, he’ll walk by my side in the forest for the rest of his days, reminding me to take time out to smell the flowers. For this, he can have a tennis ball whenever he wants!