Photos by Jaymi Heimbuch
Dogs can sniff out drugs, foods and animals in airports, track criminals or rescue people from crumbled buildings or avalanches. There seems to be no end to what a dog and its nose can do -- and thanks to Working Dogs for Conservation (WDC), they're being put to use helping scientists study and save endangered species and even eradicate invasive species. And best of all, most of these conservation dogs have been rescued themselves. Dogs have been used for conservation efforts for years now, and organizations are sprouting up to help promote and train dogs all over. While at the Wildlife Conservation Network Expo this last weekend, I met one of these wonderful dogs and found out about the program for the first time.
WDC is a nonprofit based in the U.S. that trains K9s to detect the scat of various species, which can be used by researchers to study everything from diets to health of endangered animals without disturbing them. The dogs can also sniff out invasive species so they can be removed and native habitats restored.
As WDC states, "It can be as daunting a task to locate the signs of elusive wildlife species (e.g. scat, urine, hair, dens) as it is to locate the animals themselves. This is especially the case in rugged terrain and with species that are nocturnal, cryptic, wide ranging or rare. In some cases, contact with people can pose a risk to the species under consideration... Our dog / handler teams are able to cover large areas without disturbing wildlife, livestock or domestic animals and without luring animals or changing their behavior, which can influence study results."
The nonprofit helps train dogs to detect single species or a "suite" of species and they've been used all over the world for species from grizzly bears to moon bears, wolves to foxes, lizards to moose to snails and tortoises -- and even plants!
WDC also states that most of their dogs come from shelters and rescues: "We offer jobs and a second change to these extremely high energy dogs that are at higher risk of euthanasia because they are difficult to re-home."
Considering the personality traits that the trainers seek out, entering work with WDC might be their only chance at escaping a shelter: "We look for extremely high energy dogs that have an obsessive play drive and an unrelenting toy focus, making these dogs difficult, if not impossible, to keep in a family home."
Dogs like this would have slim to no chance of finding a match with most of the people who visit a shelter, looking for a family dog or quiet companion. Yet, they have excellent prospects for helping us save species.
It is clear that dogs can play a significant role in assisting scientists and researchers in studying endangered species without disturbing them, and knowing that many of these dogs are being given a second chance -- and an exciting, interesting job -- makes the program all that much more wonderful.
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