A NOSE FOR THE JOB Shelter Dogs Help Scientists Research Habits of Carnivores and Prey

By Landers, Rich | The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA), July 2, 2015 | Go to article overview

A NOSE FOR THE JOB Shelter Dogs Help Scientists Research Habits of Carnivores and Prey


Landers, Rich, The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA)


Shelter dogs too intense or feisty to be adopted are helping wildlife scientists by doing what comes naturally - running through the woods and sniffing for the poop of other animals. "But they don't get to roll in it," said Jennifer Hartman of Conservation Canines. "We've heard those jokes." The noses of the canine misfits are being put to use in Pend Oreille County in a pilot project seeking more information about the interrelationships of wolves and other carnivores - as well as with their prey.

The dogs are tools for studying endangered species and other wildlife that doesn't require trapping or tranquilizing the animal.

"These dogs have been contracted to work all over the world," said Julianne Ubigau, a high school science teacher and eight-year veteran with the program based in the University of Washington's Department of Biology.

For example, Chester, a golden retriever mix, returned recently from a job of sniffing out bear scat in the French Pyrenees.

Scooby, a black Lab mix, has been to Cambodia, Mozambique, the Alberta oil sands, Montana and most recently Mexico for mane wolf research.

The highest profile Conservation Canines project in the Northwest involves dogs trained to put their nose to the wind in a boat and lead researchers to collect the floating poop of endangered killer whales.

The new project in northeastern Washington seeks to learn how the revival of wolves in the region influences the diets of other carnivores and their prey.

The right dogs can be trained within a couple of weeks to lead handlers to scat from specific animals so samples can be collected and sent to labs for analysis that can unlock secrets about wildlife dynamics.

"We take the dogs that can't find a home because they are too crazy to be chosen for pets," Ubigau said. "We don't want dogs interested in poop. We want dogs that are obsessed with playing ball. These are the easiest dogs to reward and train to do the job."

One of the selection tests involves walking through a dog shelter holding a tennis ball.

"We look for the dogs that see the ball and quiver," Hartman said. "Their eyes are focused on the ball. Everything about them indicates they want to play with that ball."

"Then we take them outside and hide the ball," Ubigau said. "We watch how long the dog will focus on looking for the ball. We pick a dog that has an insatiable desire to play; it would hunt for the ball to exhaustion. That's the dog for us.

"We need dogs with a strong drive to hunt but not a strong drive for prey. Our dogs can't be interested in chasing wildlife. Our goal is to be as noninvasive as possible."

Scat detection dogs are able to locate samples from multiple species simultaneously across large, remote areas repeatedly over time.

Ubigau says sampling with detection dogs tends to be less biased than traditional wildlife detection methods such as remote cameras, radio-collaring, hair snags and trapping.

The method can acquire more reliable information in a shorter a time.

The five dogs being used in Pend Oreille County from a base near Cusick have been trained to sniff out the feces of any carnivore.

"We can change that with a dog by the way we offer the reward, which is to play with the ball," Ubigau said.

In a project that focused on fishers, the handlers started by introducing the dogs to previously collected fisher scat.

"The dogs caught on fast," she said. "Before long, we noticed the dogs were often walking on logs because they quickly learned on their own that's where they had a higher probability of finding fisher poop."

This spring, as Ubigau, Hartman and Jason Broderick began the pilot project, they trained the dogs to find scat from coyotes, wolves, bears, bobcats, lynx and cougars as well as deer, elk and moose. …

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