How dogs are leading conservation fighters

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

conservation detection dogs

Story at-a-glance -

  • Dogs are helping to fight poachers around the globe while also tracking rare or invasive species, enhancing environmental protection efforts made by humans
  • At the University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology, a Conservation Canines program trains scat detection dogs that are monitoring a number of threatened and endangered species, including tigers, orcas, fishers, spotted owls, bears, wolves, jaguars and Pacific pocket mice
  • At Working Dogs for Conservation (WD4C), where dogs are trained to detect everything from weeds and animals living below the surface and aquatic organisms too small for human eyes to see, shelter dogs are turned into elite conservation detection dogs
  • Conservation dogs are also trained to help fight poachers that are decimating populations of rhinos, elephants and African wild dogs

Dogs are invaluable partners in law enforcement due to their phenomenal sniffing and tracking abilities — skills that also make them uniquely suited to help with wildlife conservation. Dogs are helping to fight poachers around the globe while also tracking rare or invasive species, enhancing environmental protection efforts made by humans.

Using their powerful noses, for instance, dogs can sniff out scat, or animal poop, which scientists can use to determine genetic, physiological and dietary information about animals. From this, conservationists can determine important information like species abundance and distribution and even physiological health in relation to environmental pressures.1

At the University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology, a Conservation Canines program trains scat detection dogs that are monitoring a number of threatened and endangered species, including tigers, orcas, fishers, spotted owls, bears, wolves, jaguars and Pacific pocket mice.2

What’s more, the program seeks out dogs with “obsessive, high-energy personalities,” which are dogs who often end up in shelters because they’re difficult to keep as family pets. Fortunately, Conservation Canines notes:

“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.”3

Shelter dogs turned conservation fighters

At Working Dogs for Conservation (WD4C), where dogs are trained to detect everything from weeds and animals living below the surface and aquatic organisms too small for human eyes to see,4 shelter dogs are turned into elite conservation detection dogs. “[W]e offer a second chance to high-drive shelter dogs, many of whom would have been euthanized if we had not put them to work saving wildlife,” the organization states.5 Their dogs work on a variety of conservation projects, including:

  • Ecological monitoring and habitat mapping — This involves finding where different species live, determining how many are there and figuring out what they need to thrive. Conservation detection dogs may develop population and habitat data 40 times more efficiently than humans.6
  • Poaching and trafficking prevention — Canine teams are trained to detect wildlife contraband and weapons, including guns, gunpowder, ammunition, ivory, rhino horn, bushmeat and pangolin (scaly anteater) scales.7 The dogs can also locate poachers and even detect contraband in closed shipping containers and mail parcels.
  • Aquatic species detection — In addition to detecting contaminants, such as heavy metals, fire retardants and pharmaceuticals, in waterways, WD4C has trained dogs to identify live aquatic species, helping to monitor and track invasive species and threatened and endangered fish.8
  • Invasive species detection — Dogs also excel at detecting invasive species, be it plant, insect or reptile. According to WD4C, “While human searchers often can’t find invaders until after they have taken over, dogs are able to scent the first colonists, alerting us to an invasion before it moves past the point of no return. WD4C has trained dogs to find Chinese bush clover in Iowa, yellow starthistle in Colorado, rosy wolf snails in Hawaii and brown tree snakes in Guam.”9
  • Disease and contaminant detection — WD4C is working on training dogs to detect diseases, such as brucellosis, in wildlife.10
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Anti-poaching dogs help prevent wildlife crime

At Animals Saving Animals, conservation dogs are trained to help fight poachers that are decimating populations of rhinos, elephants and African wild dogs. At the Save Valley Conservancy in Zimbabwe, for instance, two role-tracker and apprehension dogs help with anti-poaching patrols throughout the area’s 3,400 square kilometers (840,158 acres).11

At another location in Kenya, at the site of one of the largest black rhino sanctuaries, conservation dogs are employed in a range of capacities, including arms and explosives detection, assault dogs, infantry patrol and tracking.12 In addition to German shepherds tracking poachers in East Africa, other dogs, such as bloodhounds, are working to protect gorillas in the Democratic Republic of the Congo while Weimaraners and Malinois dogs help protect wildlife in South Africa.13

The African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) also has a Canine for Conservation Program, which trains conservation dogs to work in airports, seaports and border checkpoints to sniff out wildlife contraband, even in minute amounts such as ivory or rhino horn dust. Their dogs also work to track poachers from the site of killings to the poachers’ hideouts. According to AWF:14

“Since the program was established in 2014, the dogs are responsible for almost 300 busts. Around that same period, AWF’s law enforcement trainings have raised conviction rates from about 45% to more than 90%.”

By helping to find contraband, scat and poachers’ trails on a level beyond what humans can achieve alone, while also revealing invasive species, conservation dogs are helping to preserve endangered species and further conservation efforts worldwide.

At the same time, many of these working dogs have been rescued themselves and find a rewarding outlet for their energy. “We pride ourselves on giving dogs that cannot be in a home a second chance at life,” the Center for Conservation Biology explains,15 which means both the dogs and the wildlife they’re protecting come out on top.

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