Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Wildlife Detection Dogs

By Linda Cole

We are constantly finding new ways to use a dog's nose and their ability to control other animals in ways that are ecologically friendly and effective. Wildlife detection dogs are used at airports to keep runways free of pesky wild birds that can pose a danger to pilots, and at golf courses to control birds and other wildlife. Dogs are also being trained to help wildlife groups track and manage wildlife populations.

If you've ever taken your dog on a hike through the woods or along your favorite trail, you can tell their nose is in full gear pulling in all of the enticing scents they find on the ground and in the air. A pile of dung along the trail means nothing to us, as long as we don't step in it, but to a dog it's a very interesting prize to find. A nonprofit organization was created in 2000 called Working Dogs for Conservation. This organization trains and provides scat-detection dogs to help biologists find, manage and research wildlife populations.

For wildlife biologists, animal droppings can give them valuable information about the animal that left it. Biologists can determine how healthy the animal is by what it's been eating, what their range is, what their reproductive status is, and if their immune system is working properly. They can also learn if there are toxins in the environment from what they find in an animal's scat. This is important because it can alert biologists to any potential problems with a toxin that could affect people as well. Endangered animals can be tracked to determine if they are recovering or if they need more protection.

The job of a scat-detection dog is to find the animal's droppings. Before dogs were trained to help biologists, they had to depend on searching with the human eye. This is tiresome, and humans are much more likely to miss what they're looking for. A dog's nose is faster and more efficient, and dogs can be trained to find specific animal dung. Fox, wolf, armadillo, cougar, black bear, black-footed ferret, desert tortoise, jaguar, tree snake and whale dung are just some of the scents dogs are trained to find.

Managing wildlife includes plants and animals that are not native to a particular area. We didn't have brown or black rats in this country until a few hopped on ships sailing from Europe to America in the late 1700's. Dogs can be trained to sniff out any scent we want them to find. Working Dogs for Conservation went to Hawaii last year to help biologists find land snails that aren't native to the island, so they could be removed from Hawaii's ecosystem. Non native plants or animals that don't belong in an environment can have a negative effect on habitats and endanger or threaten an entire ecosystem.

The cool thing about Working Dogs for Conservation is that many of the dogs they use are rescued from shelters. It's not easy finding dogs with the right temperament and desire, however. A wildlife detection dog needs to have the same qualities as a search and rescue dog or a bomb sniffing dog. The dog wants to please his handler, has a lot of energy and is focused on his job. The training can take as long as four months, and each dog is trained to detect specific scents depending on the needs of different projects. Like search and rescue and bomb sniffing dogs, a favorite toy is used as a reward for finding the scent he's trained to locate. It's not a job to these dogs; it's a game they love to play.

Border Collies are being employed by airports and golf courses to help them manage wild birds and deer. Instead of using loud noises the birds get used to, a Border Collie has a lot more persuasive influence to convince the birds to move on, and ignoring the dog is not an option. The dogs are trained to simply chase them away. Canadian Geese can bring down a plane if the birds are sucked into an engine during takeoff or landing. Airports with wetlands around their runways have to deal with herons and egrets that see these wetlands as perfect places to find food or for nesting. But since birds and planes don't mix, the best solution is to keep them away from these areas.

You can learn more about other types of “working dogs” in these two RPO articles: Inspirational Dogs with Jobs and Hard Working Dogs That Protect and Serve.

Photo courtesy of Chad Harder

Read more articles by Linda Cole


  1. That is pretty interesting especially the part about how much can be learned by the wild animals droppings. Border collies are great dogs. We have one here.

  2. Mom watched a show on animal planet about a breed of dog in the carolinas that is being used by students to track turtle populations. And we have a local company here that saves border collies and uses them to chase geese. What makes us happiest is when these groups use shelter dogs to do these jobs - save a life and give a dog a job all at the same time!!!

  3. That's so amazing! There seems to be no limit to the awesome things these dogs can do.


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