July 6, 2008

From rare plants to orca poop, these dogs can find it

On the left: wildlife ecologist Dave Vesely and Rogue locate a Kincaid's lupine. [Photo by Melissa Jansson.]

Did you know scientists were using dogs to locate whale poo, endangered plants, northern spotted owls and the scat of individual grizzly bears? Am I the last one to hear about this? I believe I am.

Check out this terrific article [with photo gallery] by Lily Raff for the Bend Bulletin:
In the last decade, scientists have started using dogs — and their sensitive noses — to locate hard-to-find plants and animals. Just as some dogs are used to sniff out drugs, bombs and cadavers, others are trained to sniff out rare plants and animals.

Among scientific techniques, this one is still considered new. But the dogs already are proving so successful that many scientists — including some in Central Oregon — are eager to enlist canines in their own research.
Only a small percentage of dogs are cut out for detection work. Researchers are always on the lookout for more detector dog candidates.

Trainers say they often acquire detector dogs from shelters. Many were brought back to a shelter after a family couldn’t handle them.

“The thing that makes them a really good dog for detection work kind of makes them a horrible pet,” [biologist Alice] Whitelaw said.

“Very, very, very, very tiny things give off scent. Just because we’re all going, ‘Oh, no!’ doesn’t mean the dogs can’t do it.” So far, in fact, dogs have sniffed beyond scientists’ wildest expectations.

Professor Sam Wasser is the director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington and a pioneer in the use of dogs for this sort of detection work. According to the article, "Wasser’s lab just finished constructing a 143-acre training and kennel facility for more than 25 species-detector dogs."
For every 1,000 dogs that he tests, Wasser said one to four will meet his criteria to enter training for detector dog work. Wasser said he looks only at big dogs because they have the stamina to cover long distances during a day of work. Many detector dogs are mutts.

“We look for ability and drive rather than a particular breed,” he said.

Wasser won’t adopt pit bulls even though they often seem like they would make great detector dogs.

“I suspect pit bulls would work very well but … many of the airlines won’t let us ship them. It’s really frustrating because sometimes we go through one of our searches and we find two or three pit bulls and no other dogs that meet the criteria. But if you can’t transport the dog to the job, it defeats the purpose.”
How sad is that.

I'm terribly sorry that pit bulls are blacklisted, but I'm totally stoked that dogs are doing this sort of work, and I'd love to give it a shot with my pups. Hmm... rare plants near Big Bear Lake...

1 comment:

Katie said...

I love that they're using shelter dogs, even if they can't use pit bulls. What amazing noses dogs have, eh?