Conservation Canines Play Fetch to Save Lives

October 22, 2018 Written by: Aiden Doane

Who would have thought that the key to species conservation could be playing fetch? Well, the team at Conservation Canines certainly thinks so. And they’ve got the successful track record -- and the happy dogs -- to prove it.

Conservation Canines is an incredible program out of the University of Washington that uses dogs to help find solutions to the most pressing ecological issues around the world. The organization does so by saving out-of-options rescue pups and putting them to work tracking scat from all kinds of animals. The purpose of this tracking system is to study the myriad of data pulled from the scat through testing and to help solve complex problems threatening the wellbeing of these species.

As organizational legend has it, back in the 1990’s Dr. Sam Wasser, Director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington, was researching elephants in Africa by tracking, sampling, and testing their dung. When the project’s focus shifted to baboons -- and their smaller, harder-to-find scat -- Dr. Wasser decided that there must be a better, more efficient method to find the feces than simply relying on humans to visually search an area. There was no question that dogs, their powerful noses, and their trainability were the answer.

Fast forward twenty years, and Conservation Canines is still leading the way in noninvasive, dog-led tracking tactics to gather vital species and habitat information. Dr. Wasser and his team of handlers/scientists now work alongside 18 dogs to study all kinds of exotic animals, from tigers and bats to cougars and whales, and they do it by playing fetch. The program rescues shelter dogs and owner-surrenders whose unending drive to chase the ball made them hard to adopt. While they might make tiresome pets, this work ethic and endless supply of energy is a recipe for the perfect scat tracking dog, with fetch offered as a reward for a job well done.

Take Dio, a “rough-and-tumble, playful blue heeler,” as described by his handler Collette Yee, and who is trained to find wolverine and orca scat as well as bat and bird carcasses. Dio came from a shelter in California in August 2015 and dove straight into work on a project studying the pressures affecting the decline of the Southern Resident killer whales in the San Juan Islands off of Washington. He entered the program during a busy season, so he was thrown straight into the action and learned on the fly, working just as hard as he plays. Now, he’s an old pro: alerting Collette when their boat is downwind of orca scat and then directing the team to the sample, all while concentrating through splashing water, gusting winds, passing birds and seals, and a rocking boat. Needless to say, his Rex Specs are the perfect tool to keep his eyes shielded from the elements and protected from the sun’s glint off the waves.

The program is also working on a wind farm project in Palm Springs, California, where Winnie, the lab mix; Hiccup, an Australian cattle dog mix; Athena, a collie cattle dog mix; and Filson, a tri-colored cattle dog mix; help their handlers Justin Broderick and Skye Standish study bat and bird deaths. As the lifespan of these wind turbines reaches an end, the Bureau of Land Management will need to decide what a replacement plan looks like, but they need a clear picture of the affect the wind farm has on surrounding avian populations. Enter, Conservation Canines. While small carcasses like bats and birds would be hard to spot visually, dogs like this four-pack (who are trained on nearly 20 individual species between them) are able to efficiently get the job done. But with Mount San Jacinto and Mount San Gorgonio creating a wind tunnel of hot sand in the sunny project area, it’s imperative that all four of these dogs protect their eyes so they don’t face a cornea injury. After trying several different dog goggles for this terrain, the program finally found Rex Specs, which worked so well for the desert dogs that they ordered more to send to dogs on other projects as well.

It’s pretty fascinating to find a program that is utilizing one animal who’s out of options, like a shelter dog, to help save other wildlife who are running out of time. But perhaps what’s even more special about this program is the bond and trust these scientists share with their canine coworkers. When you’re on the road and sleeping in the wilderness 300 days out of the year, it doesn’t hurt for your colleague to start their day with a wagging tail and end it with some belly rubs -- and perhaps one more game of fetch.

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