Magazine article E Magazine

For Scientists, a Canine Poop Patrol

Magazine article E Magazine

For Scientists, a Canine Poop Patrol

Article excerpt

Wildlife researchers have discovered a new best friend. In studies from Alberta to Vermont, specially trained dogs are now being used to gather valuable information about bears, foxes and other elusive species from their droppings.

The idea of using dogs to systematically detect wildlife "scat" was initiated five years ago by Samuel Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington. From his work analyzing hormones and DNA in animal feces, Wasser knew that scat could provide a wealth of information about wildlife populations. A single sample can reveal the species, sex, individual identification, fertility status, parasites and pathogens of its former host--not to mention last night's dinner menu.

But locating feces in the wild is difficult: males tend to deposit droppings conspicuously as a territorial mark, whereas females typically hide their goods to avoid detection. Wasser's creative solution: scat-sniffing dogs.

A dog's sense of smell is at least 100 times more receptive than that of a person, thus its ability to sniff out explosives and avalanche victims. Wasser connected with a trainer who dared to dabble in doo-doo.

Barbara Davenport, an experienced, Washington-based detector dog trainer, was drawn to the challenge of developing an effective protocol that could be repeated with many dogs. As she puts it, "There's always an individual dog that can do some specific job, but it took a whole bunch of collies to replace the original Lassie. …

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