Python-Tracking Puppy Trains to Patrol Everglades

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"Find It!"

Oberhofer bought Pete from a Missouri beagle breeder and paid U.S. $250 for the eight-week-old puppy. She spent another $200 having the dog shipped to Florida. She initially planned to name him Paco but decided he "looked more like a Pete."

"I was hoping he had a good nose for tracking and would be a good dog to train," she said. "If not, he was still going to be a great companion for me."

Beagles are often used as detector dogs. That's because they are small, friendly, and not threatening to people in places where they are commonly used, such as airports and cargo holds. Like most dogs, beagles are capable of detecting many different types of odors.

"I'm working him under the assumption that the Burmese python has a specific odor that is particular to this species only," Oberhofer said. "I plan to eventually test Pete to see if he can detect a python from our native Everglades snakes."

For Pete's twice-a-week training sessions, Oberhofer puts a captive live python in a mesh bag and drags it through a grass field for 50 feet (15 meters) to create a scent trail. There, she leaves the bagged snake and Pete's favorite rope toy.

She then puts Pete into a special harness, which alerts him that it's time to play the find-the-snake game. Pete is brought on a leash to the start of the trail, where Oberhofer tells him, "Find it!"

Pete springs into action and wildly charges ahead, plowing through the grass to find the snake and his favorite toy.

"He does very well on each trial and always brings me to the snake," Oberhofer said. "He continues to show improvement each time I take him out to train. It hasn't taken him long to figure out that smelling a python means playtime for him."

Toolbox

As he does in training, Pete will stay on a leash once he is on real missions. The aim is to keep the beagle from becoming a snake snack.

"My plan is to use him along the park roads and trails but not out in the water," Oberhofer said. "The scenario I envision is getting a report of a python, perhaps seen by a tourist or park employee, and I would then take Pete on a leash to the site where the python was last seen, and he would track, on the leash, and find the python for us."

She hopes Pete will be ready to go to work in another couple of months. But she and other park officials emphasize that Pete is just one of several control methods they are researching to combat the pythons.

Said Snow, the biologist, "He's another tool in our toolbox."

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