Doggie detectives: How canines are becoming the new conservation superstars


Some of those irksome traits you tell your pooch off for—like sniffing out table scraps for a late night snack—are actually the basis of amazing conservation projects all over the world.

Over the last few decades researchers have been trying to come up with less invasive sampling techniques, but it’s no easy feat to accomplish. Just imagine trying to draw blood from a rhino without it noticing, or pulling up alongside a whale without catching its eye. On top of this, more traditional methods like darting or capture and release, stress animals out, skewing results. And on top of that most current sampling techniques are seriously costly. That’s where dogs come in.

It’s no shocker that our four-legged friends have a very precise sense of smell, but their temperament and ability to bond with humans also makes them perfect for long, hard days in the field. Today sniffer-dogs stand guard at vulnerable travel borders, are picking out species otherwise too tricky or dangerous to observe, and hunting down scat to give researchers a more complete picture of their subject’s health. The full list of dog-usage in conservation is far too long to print, so here is a breakdown of three ways dogs are lending a paw to species in trouble, plus some specific examples of how pets are preserving wildlife.

Tracking Scat

Photo by African Wildlife Foundation
Photo by African Wildlife Foundation

Samuel Wasser from the University of Washington has been refining the use of dogs in conservation projects since the 1980s, he and his team helping to pioneer the use of dogs in scat detection programs. Early in his career, working with baboons, Wasser began to consider a problem that seemed unsolvable—getting more precise, detailed data while reducing subject awareness.

That, says Wasser, was when he realised that scat was the answer. ‘There was no more accessible wildlife sample, so it was the best vehicle to explore species in a non-invasive manner,’ says Wasser. But humans aren’t reliable poop collectors. Some species purposely bury their faeces to keep predators off their track, while others spread their dung around to mark territory. It’s also pretty hard to determine which individual has contributed which samples.

Wasser also says that us humans don’t tend to notice an excess of scat during jaunts in the forest, but that a trip out with one of his dogs will fix that misconception. ‘You’ll see more poop of more kinds than you ever dreamed could be out there,’ he says.

Despite the newfound ease of its detection, the use of scat for research purposes didn’t progress much until the mid-1990s, when Wasser and his team developed genome-detection methods that could easily link poop samples to their rightful owners. From there, the push to get dogs involved in conservation wasn’t hard. There’s no shortage of candidates. While some dogs are naturally better at tracking than others, almost any breed that relies on air-scent for the skill could likely be trained to find scat. Wasser says dogs that make the cut all have one thing in common: an insatiable play-drive. This means members of elite dog scat-detection teams are often rescue dogs who overwhelmed owners with their excessive energy.

‘About one percent of all dogs are so fetch-motivated they’ll quickly learn how to do almost anything to get to play with a ball or toy,’ he says, explaining how, after sample-retrieval, a dog’s handler provides a few moments of play.

‘It takes about a third of the time to train a dog as it does the trainer, maybe a few weeks for a totally green dog,’ chuckles Wasser.

Wasser’s dogs have worked on a slew of conservation projects, from tracking tigers and grizzly bears, to helping quantify the impact of future oil-sand projects like the Keystone XL pipeline. One pawed-researcher in particular, a black lab named Tucker, has been helping locate killer whale poop from the slumping-population of Orcas inhabiting Puget Sound. Tucker won’t be patrolling this year due to lack of funding, his first year not on the water since 2009, but things haven’t slowed down for the four-legged crusaders. And Wasser’s dogs aren’t alone—plenty of other projects are using scat-detecting dogs to study a huge range of endangered animals, from cheetahs to gorillas.

Sniffing out Contraband

Photo by African Wildlife Foundation.
Photo by African Wildlife Foundation

In June India got 14 new sniffer dogs—all German shepherds—doubling the dog-driven efforts bent on reducing the illegal trade of India’s most rare species. These dogs underwent intense training to be able to detect the scent of tiger-skins, ivory and even rare bird bones.

This initiative was funded by TRAFFIC, a strategic alliance between the World Wildlife Foundation and the IUCN working to stop the wildlife trading. India’s latest acquisition represents just one of the many undertaking TRAFFIC is committed to worldwide, with programs in Europe, China, and Russia—set up at illegal import and export hotspots.  

When asked why—in a world full of high-tech options—dogs are still in such demand,

Richard Thomas, global communications coordinator for TRAFFIC writes that dogs are advanced mobile detection units. ‘The equivalent gadget would be a large kit, not easily transferable between locations. Dogs also carry out their surveillance with amazing speed and sensitivity, notes Thomas.

According to Becci May, the Regional Manager of Tiger and Asian Species programs for WWF-UK, the reasons their teams rely on dogs are unlikely to change. ‘They can detect wildlife parts, snares laid down by poachers and they can be used to track poachers themselves,’ writes May. ‘No technology is available to match this.’ Just having sniffer-dogs visible to offenders is often a deterrent in itself, she adds.

Tracking Wildlife… and Poachers.

tracking dogs
Photo by African Wildlife Foundation

As May mentioned, dogs are also great anti-poaching tools, able to locate living species too. In New Zealand residents can sign-up to train their pets to search for the country’s endangered birds, like the Kiwi, Blue Duck and the New Zealand Brown Teal. Trained dogs help researchers find these protected species for sampling, translocation or monitoring. They also hunt down predators threatening the country’s native species, like cats and rodents.

In Africa, dogs are being used on nature reserves, parks and in sanctuaries, where they identify both animals and criminals, getting the scent of offenders from crime scene findings. Mayu Mishina, senior communications and marketing manager for the African Wildlife Foundation, explains that dogs play a vital role in keeping their protected species safe.  

‘Our dogs roam and monitor set areas, look for specific poachers, and our Canine Conservation program just graduated its first class of sniffer dogs for deployment at regional air and sea ports,’ says Mishina, adding the Foundation intends to eventually make their efforts continent-wide.

‘Illegal wildlife trade is a multi-billion dollar industry that spreads everywhere,’ says Mishina. ‘We want our dogs to try and match this influence.’

While these are just a few examples of how dogs are helping conservation, and science, projects in general, the diversity of efforts mentioned here goes show that dogs may be more than just man’s best-friend. Tons of threatened and endangered plants, animals and even insects worldwide may wind up in a better state thanks to our canine conservation colleagues.