Nose to the ground, a brown Belgian Malinois with black markings and large pointy ears scans a Missoula, Mont., neighborhood. Athletic and focused, her name is Tule and she has a stare that says “Don’t mess with me.” Her owner, Megan Parker, follows quietly behind, waiting for Tule to find the scat she’s hidden in a neighbor’s yard; over the years, seeding the neighborhood with scat has become one of Parker’s routine activities. “Hi, Jake,” says Parker to her neighbor. “She’s going to get this dangerous poop out of your yard.”
Jake laughs. “Work hard, Tule!”
Seconds later, Tule sits down by a little stream. Calm and quiet and very still, she keeps her dark eyes focused on Parker, a signal that she has found the target buried beneath the rocks: mountain lion scat.
“Oh, you found it?” whispers Parker. “Who’s the best dog ever?”
Finally, the moment Tule has been patiently waiting for, a chance to play with her rope toy. Then, after a minute or two of fetch, she’s back to work, on to finding the next scat.
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Parker and Tule are training for their job with Working Dogs for Conservation, a nonprofit organization Parker founded with three colleagues almost 20 years ago to train and deploy detection dogs in the field. Using her nose, Tule is helping to answer some of conservation’s most pressing questions. In this work, dogs have a big advantage: they have no preconceptions. For example, they don’t have a model in their heads about where bears ought to be. They follow their nose and find the scat that proves where they are.
Parker—tall, athletic and Montana-born—has not only loved dogs since she was a child, but has also seen their potential. She grew up in Missoula with childhood pets that included a rescued raccoon and her brother’s owl. When she was 10, her father gave her a Shetland Sheepdog named Brandy. Parker quickly realized that if she wanted to keep him, he needed a job. She began training him in obedience.
This childhood experience prepared Parker for a realization she came to many years later. After earning a master’s degree in ecology, she got a job collecting and analyzing wolf scat in Yellowstone National Park. Confronting the challenges inherent in locating samples in a timely and noninvasive manner across a large swath of land, it occurred to her: Why not use dogs?
Parker started making calls to border patrol and customs agents, trying to find a detection dog trainer who could answer this question: Is there a way to train dogs to find scat, just like a drug dog is trained to find drugs?
“I had a ton of people hang up on me,” Parker says. Finally, a police chief friend in New York City put her in contact with Barb Davenport, a trainer who worked for the Department of Corrections in Washington state. With Davenport’s help, Parker trained her first scat-detection dogs.
Soon after, she teamed up with three other women (a geneticist, a taxonomist and a vet) and began using dogs for environmental research. In 2000, they started Working Dogs for Conservation. Although many biologists were learning to watch their own dogs’ behavior in the field, Parker and her co-founders were some of the first to use dogs in a more deliberate way, says Pete Coppolillo, Working Dogs for Conservation’s current director.
“Megan will try anything,” says Coppolillo.
After starting Working Dogs, Parker earned a PhD in wildlife biology. She was guided by world-renowned carnivore scientist John “Tico” McNutt; under his supervision, she studied chemical communication and territoriality between African wild dog packs in Botswana’s Okavango Delta.
“The fact that there are now groups of people all over the world using detection dogs in research and in controlling international trade in wildlife is an indication of her foresight,” McNutt says.
Dogs are also being used to gather important information on a different type of wildlife: invasive species (both underwater and terrestrial). For example, dogs’ noses are so good that they can detect seeds before they bloom.
“The idea is that if we can find these satellite populations of invasive species and stop them, it is going to be game-changing for native [plant] communities,” Parker says.
From shelter dogs to Indian reservation rescues to ex-police or border patrol dogs, Working Dogs for Conservation takes any dog with what Parker calls a “high-drive” personality. These are usually the dogs no one wants because they don’t make great house pets. However, their energy and stamina make them a perfect fit for their Working Dogs job.
To train the dogs, Parker puts a scent sample in a glass jar, which then goes in a cinder block. When a dog smells it, he or she is rewarded. Parker repeats the process until the dogs expect a reward for that odor.
Later, the dogs learn to search and find those smells in complex environments. Part of Parker’s job is not only finding, training and matching dogs to projects that will aid in a study, but also training handlers how to work with the dogs.
Erin Agner, a young Missoula woman who looks after Parker’s dogs and helps her train, says that the scientist’s empathy, patience and big heart have made her successful in understanding both humans and animals. “Without Working Dogs, dogs like Tule would not have a place,” Agner observes.
When she’s not training a dog or recruiting other dogs to join the team, Parker corresponds with her partners in Africa, checking on the dogs in each program and sometimes doing virtual dog training via Skype or FaceTime. She also answers inquiries and requests from agencies, organizations and researchers seeking dogs for specific tasks.
For several months each year, she visits partner programs in Africa—Zambia, Tanzania and Botswana—as well as parts of South America, which gives her insights into the partners’ dog/ handler bonds, many of which echo her own. In Zambia, she says, “their care for the dogs is over the top.” The dogs have 24-hour protection, and a handler volunteers to sleep with the dogs on the top bunk of the kennel every night.
Sitting at the kitchen table in her Missoula home, Parker is frequently interrupted by bursts of barking or Tule’s requests to play with a toy. Suddenly, four of the dogs start barking frantically at the door. Parker seems unfazed by the cacophony, but Tule, who is easily rattled, paces. Parker embraces the dog, arms and torso wrapped around Tule’s body, Tule’s head at her heart, and strokes the dog’s sleek, short coat. Within seconds, the house is quiet again and Tule lies down. But she keeps her dark eyes on Parker, ready to go outside and work at a moment’s notice. Scat awaits!
For information on Working Dogs for Conservation visit: wd4c.org