Dogs Help Scientists Monitor Endangered Species

Conservation Canine

Story at-a-glance -

  • Conservation Canines is a program that trains high-energy, single-minded dogs to track the scat of endangered animals. Many of the dogs were rescued from shelters and given a new leash on life.
  • The dogs have been trained to track species as diverse as salamanders in the mountains of New Mexico and orcas in the ocean.
  • When a dog leads researchers to a sample, the sample is exchanged for a favorite toy to reinforce the connection between work and rewards. An obsession with a single item (scat), coupled with a limitless desire for play is what makes certain dogs so effective as wildlife trackers.

By Dr. Becker

Conservation Canines was started 15 years ago at the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology. It’s a wonderful program that trains high-energy, single-minded dogs to track the scent of poop left by certain animals. The poop samples the dogs track give researchers information on threatened and endangered species across the globe.

Many Conservation Canines dogs were rescued from shelters where they were candidates for euthanasia. Many folks looking for a four-legged companion aren’t prepared to deal with an extremely active dog with obsessive-compulsive tendencies.

One of the animals conservationists are interested in is the Jemez Mountains salamander, which is on New Mexico’s endangered species list. Even though the salamander has lived in the mountains for thousands of years, it remains sensitive to changes in temperature and moisture levels.

Conservation Canines was provided with salamander scat (feces) and a portion of a tail that had broken off. Trainers used the items to teach the dogs how to recognize both male and female Jemez Mountains salamanders. The dogs are helping scientists estimate how many of the salamanders survived a recent drought.

Why Poop?

Very simply, wildlife excrement is plentiful and easy to find. According to the Center for Conservation Biology, it contains genetic, physiological and dietary information about animals that provides feedback to researchers about changes in the environment.

Some of the Conservation Canines dogs can even locate orca scat that can either sink or disperse in the ocean in 30 minutes. The dogs board boats and set sail to search for whale poop. They are trained to lean in a certain direction or move their ears a certain way to signal a find.

When a dog leads researchers to a sample, the researchers carry it to the dog and then immediately substitute it with a favorite toy to reinforce the connection between work and rewards. An obsession with a single item (scat), coupled with a limitless desire for play is what makes certain dogs so effective as wildlife trackers.

What Makes an Ideal Conservation Canine?

According to the Conservation Canines website:

The ideal scat detection dog is intensely focused and has an insatiable urge to play. Their obsessive, high-energy personalities make them difficult to maintain as a family pet, so they often end up at the shelter with euthanasia the most likely outcome.

The single-minded drive of these dogs makes them perfect Conservation Canines. They are happy to work all day traversing plains, climbing up mountains, clambering over rocks and fallen trees, and trekking through snow, all with the expectation of reward – playing with their ball – after successfully locating wildlife scat.

We rescue these dogs and offer them a satisfying career traveling the world to help save numerous other species.

Sadie, a 10-year-old lab/pointer mix, was donated to Conservation Canines because her owner couldn’t abide the dog’s ball obsession. Sadie once stood for eight hours staring up at the top of the refrigerator where she knew her owner had “hidden” her ball.

“When the owner told me that story, my immediate response was, ‘We’ll take her,’ ” said professor Samuel K. Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology and the orca scat research project.