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How Scat Detection Dogs Sniff Out Poop and Help Save the Planet

We give you the straight poop on the incredible work done by Conservation Canines at the Center for Conservation Biology in Washington State.

 |  Jul 27th 2012  |   4 Contributions


Each of us tries in some small way to do our part for the planet: "recycling" shelter dogs by adopting them, and scooping with green poop bags to reduce our carbon paw-print. But one organization, the Center for Conservation Biology in Washington state, literally trains pups to help save the planet. Harnessing the boundless energy of dogs -- and their natural curiosity about other critters' droppings -- the center redirects the "undesirable" traits of shelter dogs and turns them into Conservation Canines, four-footed planet protectors who earn their keep by protecting the environment. These dogs' job is to sniff out the scat of various endangered species, which has a tremendously positive global environmental impact.

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Waylon the Lab is learning how to sniff out orcas.

You heard that right: Conservation Canines locate exotic poop, and their handlers scoop the scat so scientists can study it. The data retrieved from the scat scan is used to help the world's animals, whether they are killer whales, pocket mice, elephants in Africa, or wolves in Alberta.

Many of CCB's star sniffers came thisclose to being put down before they found their calling as scat detectors. To stay abreast of new talent, the center keeps in touch with shelters in Washington, Oregon, Arizona, and Tennessee. "Most of the Washington shelters where we have received dogs from in the past will call us if they have a ball-obsessed dog," says animal technician and dog handler Bud Marks.

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Sampson searches for pocket mouse scat, which is as small as a fennel seed.

The trait that drives many people crazy -- ball obsession -- is a Conservation Canine's greatest asset. "All of our dogs are obsessed with some sort of toy which is their reward when they find a sample," Bud explains. "We start out with a scat placed out in the yard, and when the dog sniffs this new smell, we'll throw the ball in front of them. Soon, they'll associate the smell of the scat with getting to play with their toy. We'll advance to when they are smelling the sample, we'll tell them to sit, and then they will receive their toy. This will be their cue to us in the field that they are at a sample when they are sitting next to it. We will slowly make the scats more difficult to find in different locations and environments."

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Chester and Scooby in Yellowstone, where they searched for bobcat scat.

Two of the group's hardest-working hounds are a Border Collie named Frehley and a Lab named Sampson. "Frehley has been with the program since 2005 and started out in our matching program where he was trained to match individuals out of a population of scats," Bud says. Frehley has been on many projects in California and Oregon looking for the fisher, a member of the weasel family. "Sampson has been with us since 2008 and has been on many studies. He's searched for spotted owl and barred owl pellets and scats in California and Oregon. He's found scat from the Pacific pocket mouse, where the scat is about the size of a fennel seed, and has recently completed a study looking for sea turtle nests in the Gulf of Mexico."

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Frehley with handler.

And to think these accomplished canines were former shelter dogs nobody wanted! "Many of the dogs we've had in the past have been close to being put down due to their high energy, where people could not deal with that excessive energy," Bud says. "Sampson, for instance, came to us from Seattle Humane and is one of our most ball crazy and good workers."

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Some CCB dogs worked in Cambodia to find the scat of endangered tigers.

As for Frehley, the dedicated scat-sniffing Border Collie narrowly escaped death at a Seattle animal shelter; sadly, most shelters would've deemed him unadoptable. "His previous owner had kept him in a crate in a small apartment for the first year of his life, and he couldn't deal with not being able to release his energy so he went crazy," Bud recalls. "He had stopped eating and had a nervous tic where he would chase his feet. He would do that constantly except when he could focus on his Frisbee. We had to hand-feed him the first few months he was with us, but he quickly learned and excelled at locating scat. He slowly gained more and more confidence, and become one of our better working dogs."

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Frehley climbs fallen trees to search for the scat of the fisher, a member of the weasel family.

Sampson and Frehley are gearing up for their next mission: sniffing salamander scat for the Nature Conservancy of New Mexico. Next month, Sampson and Frehley will head to the Jemez Mountains to track Jemez salamanders, found nowhere else in the world. Sniffing out where the salamanders live and how many there are in the area during monsoon season is critical to the future of the salamander species' and to our forests. Here's why: A warmer, drier climate in New Mexico has affected the salamanders' habitat, threatening their survival. 

By mapping the salamanders, scientists will be able to create a management plan that will help the lizards as well as the forests we all depend on for clean water supplies and recreation. The work includes restoring the forest, woodlands, and streams. So two former shelter dogs are now key players in the Southwest Climate Change Initiative -- way to go!

Here's a video of the dogs in action:

So, after all is sniffed and done, what's life like for an off-duty Conservation Canine? After they return from projects, the dogs are taken to CCB's facility, owned by the University of Washington and situated on 4,300 acres of forested land, which is perfect for training the dogs in a variety of real-life wild conditions. Each dog has spacious indoor and outdoor living areas, with a large secured area for daily, supervised social playtime. They are exercised every day by handlers and volunteers.

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The dogs' home when they aren't traveling the globe. Looks pretty swell!

"You can't go home again," the saying goes. But for some Conservaton Canines who retire from active (ahem) duty, the circle of kindness is complete when their original families welcome them back. "We've had several dogs who were owner-surrenders reunite with their previous owners after working for several years," Bud says. "Hopefully, after they've had a job to do, they eventually become more of a 'normal' dog who will be able to deal better in a home environment."

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