When Joshua Beese introduced Dia, his conservation tracking dog, to the fungus Oak Wilt for the first time, he wasn’t sure what to expect. As a test outing, the team went to a site in New York where they knew the fungus was around, just to see if Dia could detect it. “We’re just like alright well let’s see what happens,” said Beese. “And we let her out and she’s going and she’s sniffing and all of a sudden she comes to this tree stump and she kind of starts doing circles around it, like a six-foot circle around this pretty big stump probably three feet in diameter.”
After circling it, Dia eventually jumps on the tree stump, turns to Beese, and sits — her sign that this is where the scent is strongest. The stump Dia sat on had been a tree infected with Oak Wilt two years earlier. “She was actually able to detect that fungus that had been there from two years ago, so that was really really amazing,” Beese said.
Dia is an American Field Labrador and has been doing this type of detective work for the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference since August 2018. Beese recruited Dia for her next-level energy, agility, and obsession for toys. Along with Oak Wilt, Dia can identify Scotch Broom, Slender False Brome, and Spotted Lanternfly, all of which are invasive species and cause issues with biodiversity in the environment.
Hailing from Wisconsin, Dia is one of the founding members of the Trail Conference’s Conservation Dogs Program along with her handler Beese and her brother Fagen, a Belgian Malinois. While the Trail Conference has been around for 100 years, Beese began this program in January 2018 after seeing similar ones with Working Dogs for Conservation where they’ve used dogs to research and track endangered animals.
“I had [initially] wanted to do endangered plants,” Beese said. “I didn’t even know what invasive species were four or five years ago.”
Invasives are non-native species that outcompete native species because they have no natural predators. They essentially throw a wrench into the ecosystem’s entire biodiversity machine. Dogs can play a huge role in the fight against invasives because they sniff out individual organisms that humans struggle to find or identify.
With $600, a vision for their dog program, and mentorship from Working Dogs for Conservation, Beese and the Trail Conference were able to start their program and get two new dogs in on the fight.
Now, at three years old, Dia is still a fireball of energy and loves to go out on searching missions. Dia starts off every day of work with some light stretches and a walk to get warmed up, then dons her special work vest and Rex Specs. When the team has all their gear ready, Beese tells Dia, “go find,” and the hunt is on!
With the type of work Dia does, she’s often charging through thorns and bushes in search of the smell she’s looking for which is why her Rex Specs have become an essential part of her work uniform. “The key is they’re really just protecting her,” said Beese. “Some of those thorns are really long, they could easily poke her in the eye.”
Before the program had Rex Specs, Beese said they would often have to rinse out Dia’s eyes after spring missions to get out dirt and pollen, but they don’t have to with the goggles. Since the team got the goggles 2 months ago, Dia has put them through the wrecker bounding through bushes and scratching them up. Beese sees the scratches as a sign of how much Dia needs the goggles to protect her.
“I think a lot of people are wearing them, but they’re not using them the way we use them,” said Beese. “It’s kind of like in case something may get into the eye, where with her, it is. She’s running through thorns and bushes and it gets all scratched up.”
Thankfully, Dia has never had any serious eye injuries, but Beese remembers occasionally having to pull thorns out of her face or treat scratches around her eyes. With the Rex Specs, that doesn’t happen anymore and we’re proud to be supporting Dia save the forest — and play with her ball.
Follow Dia on Instagram: @diasavestheforest
Words by Johanna Flashman