Canine Conservationists Help Scientists Around the World

©. Jaymi Heimbuch

Dogs can learn a lot more tricks than sit and fetch. Around the world, dogs have been trained to help conservationists by sniffing out everything from scat to invasive plants.

Using dogs' powerful noses is becoming an increasingly common practice reports Lisa Landers for QUEST.

One of the most prominent groups in this field is Working Dogs for Conservation (WDC), an organization that trains dogs rescued from shelters. The organization has contributed to projects in 18 different states and 11 different countries. For example, WDC has trained dogs to sniff out snares set by poachers in Zambia and to identify beetle-infested trees in the forests of Minnesota.

Bomb-sniffing dogs are common fixtures on many police forces, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has trained dogs to catch ivory smugglers. The dogs work in airports and shipping centers to find illegal rhino and ivory inside boxes and other luggage.

But one of the most common ways that dogs can help conservationists is by finding scat. Tracking poop may not seem glamorous, but it's less stressful for the animals than GPS tracking and the scat can yield a range of information. Chemical analysis can show what the animals have been eating, if they're sick or even if they've been exposed to toxins.

At the University of Washington, the Conservation Canine program has been used to track a number of threatened species, including spotted owls, bears, wolves, caribou and giant armadillos. Their dogs have traveled as far as Cambodia, where the canine helpers tracked endangered tigers.

dogs photo

© UW Center for Conservation Biology

Research dogs are even being used to help study marine animals. The University of Washington has been using dogs to smell out killer whale droppings from research boats in Puget Sound. Without the help of dogs, researchers would have to trail the whales with boats, an activity that can be stressful for the pursued animal.

These programs are also beneficial for the dogs themselves. Both University of Washington and Working Dogs for Conservation train dogs that come from animal shelters. WDC biologist Pete Coppolillo tells QUEST that they look for dogs that are very high-energy, a quality that most families may not want in a pet. “Frankly, it’s the crazy ones,” Coppolillo said. “The high-energy ones who will look at you with the Frisbee and say ‘come on, let’s go’ again and again.”