Meet Ruger and Lily, Shelter Dogs Turned Conservation Workers


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Ruger’s life started out in an abusive home, followed by some time in a Montana shelter. Now this beautiful mixed breed is helping to stop illegal poaching activity in Zambia. The highly motivated dog can search African vehicles piled high with boxes and bags — and detect extremely well-hidden guns and ammunition, ivory, snares, and bushmeat with his impressive sense of smell. Oh, and he also happens to be blind.

Ruger got a second chance at life thanks to a shelter volunteer who contacted Working Dogs For Conservation (WD4C), a Montana-based nonprofit organization that rescues shelter dogs and trains them for a variety of projects related to protecting wildlife and natural areas all over the world.

One such project took place in California, where a team of WD4C dogs were trained to detect a small, elusive fox called the San Joaquin kit fox, native to the central California desert. By searching out fox droppings, the dogs were able to alert researchers to which parcels of land were inhabited by the tiny foxes, resulting in a $2 million investment to protect their habitat forever.

“It was really gratifying to see the work lead so directly to permanent conservation, which, by the way, will benefit a bunch of other species besides the kit fox,” said Pete Coppolillo, who has a Ph.D. in Ecology and is executive director for WD4C.

Ruger and his handler, Godfrey Mwanza, inspect a vehicle in Zambia. (Photo courtesy Working Dogs 4 Conservation Facebook page)
Ruger and his handler, Godfrey Mwanza, inspect a vehicle in Zambia. (Photo courtesy Working Dogs for Conservation Facebook page)

The organization was co-founded in 2000 by Megan Parker, Alice Whitelaw, Deborah Smith Woollett, and Aimee Hurt. The four women had wanted to harness the potential of using dogs to find wide-ranging carnivores like grizzly bears and wolves through noninvasive means such as scat detection. Animal researchers were able to collect information about the wild animals without actually having to capture them or disturb them, thanks to the dogs’ work.

In the past 15 years, WD4C has continued to expand its work in the thriving field of conservation and wildlife protection and is now the world’s leading con- servation detection dog organization.

“We are using dogs to find aquatic contaminants like pharmaceuticals, flame retardants, and heavy metals,” Coppolillo explained. “They’re also helping us find invasive fish and mussels in bodies of water and to find the scat of diseased animals living in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.”

The dogs’ abilities are so impressive that these canine super noses can even detect harmful plants before they break the surface of the ground and can alert scientists to various microscopic aquatic organisms invisible to the human eye.

What does it take for a dog to become part of WD4C’s hard-work- ing detection team? WD4C prefers to rescue dogs from U.S. shelters whenever possible. Coppolillo explained that many of the behaviors that land dogs in shelters — boundless energy, crazy toy drive, and single-mindedness — are exactly what he’s looking for in a detection dog.

“By taking in some of the shelters’ most difficult-to-adopt animals, WD4C is saving lives and training talented and dynamic dogs who just want a job to do. “I find it so inspiring to watch a dog lose herself in her work,” he said. “I envy that focus and drive and wish I could have it more in my own life.”

(Photo courtesy Working Dogs 4 Conservation Facebook page)
Detection dog, Lily. (Photo courtesy Working Dogs for Conservation Facebook page)

Insatiable toy drive is the basis of the training program, as dogs who are obsessed with a favorite toy will do anything to play with it, including spending long hours learning to detect various scents, according to Coppolillo.

And surprisingly, he said that neither a dog’s “manners” nor her vision is something WD4C worries about when selecting dogs to train.

“Lily and Mocha want to work so much that they howl in their crates when other dogs are working. And we have two blind dogs: Ruger, who developed eye problems during his training and eventually lost his vision, and Dallas. In many ways, their lack of eyesight makes them even better at scent detection because they can’t be distracted by visual cues, and they have learned to use their noses for everything.”

Not surprisingly, there are many challenges in wide-reaching conservation work. To train the dogs in specialized scent detection, the WD4C team of trainers must use authentic samples, but acquiring scat samples from rare or endangered species can be quite difficult. And, as for many nonprofit organizations, funding is always an issue. While many species or natural habitats would greatly benefit from detection dogs like Ruger, Lily, Mocha, or Dallas, there isn’t always enough government or foundation money to fund the work.

But Coppolillo stays positive, and when asked what’s next for WD4C, he just praised the dogs: “We keep asking them to do harder and harder things, and they keep succeeding. So to answer your question, I don’t know what they’ll do next, but I can tell you that it will be great fun, and it will have a significant and positive impact for conservation.”

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About the author: Crystal Gibson is a Canadian expat in France who teaches English by day and does freelance work by night (and on weekends). She’s written for and since 2013 and has been published in Chicken Soup For the Soul. When she’s not traveling, teaching, or writing, Crystal is taking care of her Doxie mix, Pinch, and needy Sphynx cat, Skinny Mini. She can be found on Twitter @PinchMom.

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