Meet the dogs saving endangered species

By Ella Davies

It might surprise you to learn that there are conservationists on four legs as well as two.

The practice is actually nothing new, particularly in New Zealand where early conservationist Richard Henry trained his pet dog to sniff out rare local birds for protection in the 1890s.

A dog in a harness looking over the side of a boat
Scientists use dogs to track whales. © Conservation Canines
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Realising that imported stoats were having a devastating impact on species such as kiwi and kakapo, Henry relied upon his pooch to help translocate birds to a reserve on Resolution Island. While this early effort was thwarted by swimming stoats, it paved the way for the world’s first government-backed conservation dogs programme, established in 1998. The rest of the world have steadily been catching on to the benefits since.

Agile and loyal, dogs have many qualities that recommend them for field work, but it’s their nose that puts them ahead of many of their human counterparts. It’s not that humans have a bad sense of smell, scientists have found we can detect up to a trillion different scents, but dogs come equipped with a super-powered nose as standard. Moist surfaces trap odour molecules, but dog noses are also remarkably sensitive – they have around 220 million olfactory receptors compared to 5 million in the human nose. These receptors detect smells and send signals to the brain, and dogs dedicate proportionately 40 times more of their brain to scent analysis than we do.

Add in a suite of other adaptations that allow dogs to filter the air they breathe in to a dedicated smelling area at the back of the nose, retain a scent after they’ve exhaled and determine which nostril detected a certain aroma, and you’ve got an extremely sophisticated smelling machine.

Nevertheless, if you’re a dog owner, you might be most familiar with your pet using their sense of smell for apparent evil – seeking out poop. Next time your pooch gleefully rolls in a pile of something stinky, you can think of the dogs that are being purposefully trained to save endangered animals by sniffing out scat. According to a review of scientific studies featuring conservation dogs, around half of them focus on patrolling for poo. Worldwide, dogs have helped scientists to track snow leopards, koalas, gorillas and even killer whales by following their nose to the muck.

Jennifer Hartman is a research scientist at the University of Washington’s Conservation Canines (CK9) facility which is home to 20 specially trained sniffer dogs. The CK9 team took on the tricky task of tracking orca poo, which only floats on the ocean’s surface for a limited time.

“The whale team utilizes the wind and tide table to understand how the water is moving and the captain of the boat drives in transects perpendicular to the wind. Meanwhile the handler and dog are on the bow and the handler directs the captain with minute adjustments to the transect based on the dog's behaviour,” explains Hartman.

By successfully tracking and sampling the excrement, scientists can check on the health of the Southern resident orca population, which faces profound environmental stress from disrupted food supplies, pollution and boat traffic.

For their co-operation, the dogs receive their favourite treat. “We reward our dogs for locating target odours by playing ball,” says Hartman. “They can be any breed, most any size, but they all have to have one thing in common: an extreme obsession to play ball.” says Hartman. She explains that around 98% of the dogs are from rescue shelters, given up by owners who could not match their energy levels. Enthusiastic pups are a must for the programme, but handlers need to match this with patience, curiosity and hard work. “Pairing a conservation dog with their handler is critical to the success of the work,” says Hartman.

Pairing a conservation dog with their handler is critical to the success of the work"

Jennifer HartmanResearch Scientist, Conservation Canines, University of Washington
A black dog in a forest sniffs the ground
Dogs make for great conservationists. © Conservation Canines

These dogs certainly have their work cut out for them but have so far risen to the challenges of finding not only sporadic orca poop, but the buried scats of Chinese pangolins, tiny Pacific pocket mouse droppings and even the minute frass of silverspot butterfly caterpillars, which Hartman compares to “pepper flakes”.

After the scat sniffers, the next most common task for conservation dogs is live animal detection. With their years of experience, New Zealand is considered global leaders in the use of conservation dogs for seeking out hard to find species. But they’re also putting paws on the ground to tackle the invasive aliens that threaten the future survival of their unique wildlife. Many working dogs were first bred to be pest controllers in agricultural settings; now conservation dogs are used to find introduced rats and stoats on NZ’s island safe havens, feral cats in Australia, mongooses in Japan – even mussels and ants in the US that cause destruction and upset ecosystems.

It’s just one of the ways dogs are being employed to keep human activity in check. They have helped to survey wind farms in order to gauge bat fatalities – one trial showed how dogs were more than three times better at finding bat carcasses than humans. Dogs are also used at Kenya’s Mombasa port to sniff out illegal wildlife products, including rhino horn and ivory. At the end of August 2018, WWF, TRAFFIC and Kenya Wildlife Service started trialling a new method to boost how many shipments the dogs could sniff. By filtering air samples through special sniff pads, the dogs are able to work in a climate-controlled room instead of slogging around the docks in the hot sun visiting each container.

Elsewhere in Africa there are dogs working at the extreme frontline of conservation. Daryll Pleasants is the founder of Animals Saving Animals, an organisation dedicated to training dogs that take on poachers. Pleasants explains that their training is similar to that of police dogs since they are “managing a crime scene”. They must be able to locate where weapons have been fired, find evidence, track poachers through both rural and urban environments and ultimately apprehend them.

“Although dogs are not a silver bullet in the fight against poaching they are a huge security force multiplier,” says Pleasants. “One dog is able to secure the same area as seven rangers with the detection skills to indicate on the presence of poacher up to a kilometre away in favourable conditions and the ability to track at night... Without doubt anti-poaching teams are now successfully fighting back and owning the conservancy at night which used to be the poacher’s killing field.”

The image of a handler repelling from a helicopter with a specially trained dog ready to take down wildlife criminals is a powerful one. For centuries we’ve described the dog as man’s best friend, now it seems that special relationship can be extended to help protect the world’s most vulnerable species too.

Featured image by Conservation Canines