Working Dogs for Conservation trains abandoned pups to sniff out clues – Lifotravel

The dogs were stranded on the streets or sitting in shelters, dropped off by owners who couldn’t handle the pups’ strong will and frenetic energy. Their temperaments were too volatile.

One of them, Tigee, was seized by animal control for being too aggressive. The 7-year-old shepherd mix spent several weeks in isolation in a four-foot kennel in Virginia.

But Tigee was smart and had an intense attachment to his toys, so he was a perfect fit to be a “conservation canine” — a dog trained to sniff out endangered species or other important environmental clues.

In 2017, Tigee was rescued by Working Dogs for Conservation (WD4C), a conservation detection dog organization based in Turah, Mont. Tigee now lives in Zambia, where he uses his strong drive — and big black snout — to collect data in South Luangwa National Park and protect the region’s wildlife, including pangolins, a scaly-skinned mammal that is a threatened species.

After a successful session collecting data, he is rewarded with toys and treats.

“There are lots of great dogs in shelters that don’t need to be there,” said Pete Coppolillo, the executive director of WD4C, which manages about 45 conservation canines in various countries. Most of the dogs were rescued from shelters.

Tobias, a 9-year-old Labrador retriever, was found wandering around alone in Helena, Mont., in 2016.

He had a hyper personality, a trait Coppolillo said often makes dogs unappealing as family pets. Instead, he was taken in by WD4C and now spends his days sniffing out invasive zebra and quagga mussels in Montana’s Glacier National Park. After a search, he also gets a toy and treats.

‘Please write me,’ she scribbled on a random egg in 1951. Someone just did.

Tobias’s co-worker Zoey, another 7-year-old shepherd mix, was a stray dog on the streets of Texas. She was rescued in 2017, and since then she’s been using her stellar sniffing skills to find wild cats in Missoula, Mont., and conduct ecological monitoring — locating and safeguarding threatened and endangered species of plants and animals.

There are certain baseline characteristics that conservation canines should have, Coppolillo said, including a high toy drive, strong work ethic and robust energy. The best dogs for the job are those that have a tendency to become fixated on a task and won’t rest until it’s completed. In other words, couch potato dogs aren’t exactly a fit for conservation work.

The WD4C pack is mainly spread out across two continents — North America and Africa. Each dog is paired with a human handler, who is responsible for looking after them, training them and working alongside them in the field.

“It’s not easy work. We ask these dogs to do very difficult tasks,” Coppolillo said. “The closer the dog and the handler are, the better a team they’re going to be.”

Dog kept escaping shelter to sleep in nursing home. Staff adopted him.

While the work can be arduous, the pups and their handlers have fun on the job.

“They love each other, and they want to spend time together,” Coppolillo said. “It’s a nice life.”

Dogs are uniquely positioned to collect data that helps humans track and preserve endangered species — and find invasive species — because of their exceptional sense of smell. Dogs have millions more olfactory receptor cells than humans.

“Everything about them architecturally and physiologically is built for filtering, identifying and processing scents,” said Megan Parker, a biologist and a co-founder of WD4C.

Dog brains have a notably large olfactory lobe that enables them to detect even the faintest smells and differentiate between similar odors. Plus, Parker said, “the nose height from the ground” also makes canines supreme sniffers.

While many mammals have an acute sense of smell, she said, there is a key factor that makes dogs different: They are quick to learn new things — and, for the most part, they listen to directions from someone they trust.

World’s oldest chicken is 21: ‘Peanut loves to sit in my lap and watch TV’

“The truly exceptional thing about a dog is their relationship with us,” Coppolillo said. “It’s the relationship with us, with humans, that makes them so special.”

“Dogs and humans have a long history of working together and paying attention to each other,” said Parker.

There are certain breeds that make better working dogs than others, Coppolillo said, though many canines can be trained at detection.

“Our most common dog now is a mutt,” he said. “Mutts can do it just like a fancy specialty bred dog.”

In addition to shelter dogs, WD4C also takes in “career-change dogs,” which Coppolillo described as dogs that fail out of another job, such as customs and border protection or search and rescue.

WD4C dogs have different duties, but their roles in each are much the same, in that they focus on ecological monitoring. Their job is mostly snout-centric.

They are trained to target certain odors — and alert their human handlers when they’ve found them.

“It’s this cool communication between the handler and the dog,” said Parker.

“They’re trained to find their target odor, and they will run around a landscape and look for it,” Coppolillo said. “Dogs are evolutionarily predisposed to find it.”

The target odor, in most cases, is feces.

Fecal matter is extremely valuable to conservationists, as it offers insights into an animal’s pedigree, what they are related to and where they came from. It can also shed light on an animal’s hormone levels and dietary patterns, as well as toxins in their bodies.

“The amount of information you can get from scat is always increasing because of fancier labs,” Coppolillo said.

He was a lifelong bachelor. Now he’s getting married at age 93.

If biologists want to pinpoint precisely where grizzly bears live, for instance, “we don’t have to see or catch a bear,” Coppolillo said. “We just let the dog go out and find their poop.”

Likewise, “if we want to know where wolverines live because we want to protect them, dogs can help us do that.”

In addition to ecological monitoring, WD4C dogs also work to combat wildlife crimes through detecting guns and ammunition and tracking poachers, as well as uncovering invasive species and diseases.

The canines’ contribution to the cause “is vital,” said Parker, who is now a project director at the Center for Large Landscape Conservation, a nonprofit in Bozeman, Mont. “It’s helping law enforcement, it’s helping field biologists collect data.”

Parker and Coppolillo both believe that this is just the beginning of what conservation canines can do to protect the planet.

“People are getting more and more sophisticated about the questions that they ask dogs,” said Parker. “There’s going to be incredible questions that people can ask of dogs, and they’ll be blown away when they get the right answer.”

Leave a Comment