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Conservation Goes to the Dogs

Story by
Nancy Joseph
Freshley, with Bud Marks

Scat detection dog Frehley, with handler Bud Marks, searches for fisher scat in the Sierra Nevadas.

“Scat can provide information on everything from an animal’s diet to its stress level to its reproductive health—all without disturbing the animal,” explains research professor Sam Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology and Endowed Chair in Conservation Biology. "Because DNA is also present in scat, individual animals within a population can be identified with precision."

Wasser first came up with the idea of using detection dogs to locate scat in the late 1990s. If dogs could be trained to sniff out narcotics, he figured, why not scat?  He spent three years training dogs with the head narcotics dog trainer for the Washington State Department of Corrections while modifying the methods for scat detection. “Instead of searching in confined spaces as narcotics dogs do, our dogs would be searching in large open areas and looking for specific species,” explains Wasser. “Once we saw how awesome these dogs were, we realized we could really comprehensively sample these wilderness areas.”

The Power of Poop

Wasser can offer numerous examples of the CK9 dogs’ prowess at detection. Sampson, a black lab, can locate a pocket mouse dropping no larger than a grain of rice in an area the size of a football field.  Tucker, another black lab, has detected moose, caribou, and wolf scat in freezing temperatures through snow two feet deep and has tracked killer whale scat in water from a kilometer away. “And that’s in currents that are whipping,” says Wasser of the whale scat.

How does a dog point researchers toward whale scat? Wasser likens it to a scavenger hunt, where you can hint that someone is getting hotter or colder. When Tucker detects the scat, he leans over the boat to let the team know they’re getting warmer. If the scent weakens, he sits up to tell the team they are getting colder.

Wading through snow in search of moose

Marvin and handler Chris Zieminski wade through deep snow in the Alberta Oil Sands.

Once scat is located, the team scoops it up for analysis. Their findings often lead to better understanding of complex environmental problems. For the killer whale study, researchers wanted to understand why the killer whale population in Washington state has failed to recover from a 1990s decline. Hypotheses abound, including the stress of whale-watching boats, a dwindling supply of fish, and an increase in levels of PCBs and PBDEs. To tease out this problem, a Center for Conservation Biology team measured toxins, stress hormones, and nutrition in scat samples.

“When there’s a disturbance in the environment, it almost never kills the animal,” says Wasser, “but it increases their probability of dying over time. So how do you know what did it? Being able to track physiological changes is the bridge, because those changes occur rapidly.”

In the case of killer whales, the team was able to show that the main problem is starvation due to a shortage of fish, but that other factors have been at work as well. “When the whales start to starve, they burn off fat,” explains Wasser. “Given that toxins are stored in fat, there’s a double whammy. And the stress of the boats seems to matter most when there’s not enough food. So fish, toxins, and boats all need to be addressed, but the key is fish. Fixing the fish problem will buy more time to clean up toxins and get boats properly regulated.”

Tuker searching for whale scat.

Tucker tracks killer whale scat in the fast moving currents off of San Juan Island.

Another study, focusing on dwindling populations of caribou in the Alberta Oil Sands, involved the collection of caribou, moose, and wolf scat over several seasons. Analysis of the scat showed that the suspected culprit—the wolf population—is not at fault. Instead, the impact is insufficient lichen, which is the caribou’s primary winter diet and co-occurs in areas of highest use by seasonal oil company workers. The hope is that such findings can lead to regulatory changes that protect wildlife, moving human use areas away from lichen rich areas. (This project recently won an award from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers as the top environmental project of the year.)

“The dogs who collect the scat are the sexy part, but they wouldn’t be any good if you couldn’t get the information out of what they find,” says Wasser. “Being able to get the samples and then get all this valuable information from the samples is what’s really phenomenal.”

A Nose for Training

Okay, but back to that sexy part:  the dogs.  Conservation Canines team currently includes 11 dogs, all trained by handlers at the UW’s Pack Forest facility in Eatonville, Washington. The dogs spend up to six months in the field, depending on research funding and the data required. Before a study begins, dogs train for up to a month to identify a specific animal’s scat.

“The first step is to connect the scat with a ball,” explains Heath Smith, CK9’s field operations coordinator. “We put the scat out, then bring the dog out. When they go to smell the scat, they get to play with the ball. We take the ball away until they smell scat again.” Some animals have been trained in up to a dozen species’ scat. If they gather samples from multiple species during a study, the species can be identified later through DNA in the scat. Although CK9’s dogs all receive similar training, each dog has particular strengths. Tucker, who is afraid of water and unlikely to dive in, is perfect for the killer whale study. In packed snow, dogs with wide paws are best. In an area with thick undergrowth, a small dog is preferred.

Smith, who’s been at this since 2001, says that training the dogs is easy compared to training their handlers, which can take several months. The job requires someone who is “patient but also has the confidence to work with dogs,” explains Smith. “Having the knack for speaking with and understanding what motivates a dog is also handy.”

Surprisingly, most of the handlers are not dog owners themselves. “The majority of us don’t have dogs, and haven’t had dogs,” says Smith. “We don’t have preconceived notions of how to interact with dogs. Dog owners have to unlearn what they’ve learned.”

In the field, the handlers oversee the dogs’ work, traveling up to 15 kilometers with their canine partners in a six- to eight-hour day. (The handler’s day is longer, with data to be input and travel to be coordinated.) “Some of the dogs won’t stop unless we make them stop,” says Smith. “They are so single-minded and driven. When that happens, they have a hard time getting up the next day. So we have to closely monitor how hard they work.”

Conservation Canines’ dogs have sniffed scat on three continents for studies of more than a dozen species including bear, tiger, leopard, jaguar, bobcat, wolf, wolverine, caribou, moose, cougar, badger, lynx, pocket mouse, killer whale, and sea turtle. Yet with CK9’s funding largely dependent on dwindling government grants, the dogs and handlers are not as busy as they could be.  What would help, say Wasser and Smith, is private support, enabling CK9 to conduct pilot projects at a reduced cost and demonstrating to prospective clients what the dogs can do.

“The first time I went out with one of the dogs, it was amazing to see the amount of information that could be collected without any trapping or tagging,” says Smith. “We’re not cheap, but if you look at the cost of other methods of tracking wildlife, we’re very cost effective. There are a bunch of tools in the toolbox now. And this is avery powerful tool.”

For more about Conservation Canines, visit