"Scat Dogs" Sniff Out Endangered Species Feces

Maryann Mott
for National Geographic News
October 1, 2003
Dogs are being used to sniff out the scat of endangered species like wolves, kit foxes, grizzly bears—even right whales. The feces of these animals are a treasure trove for researchers, yielding valuable information about the animals, including population size, fertility, gender, stress, and extent of home range.

Before scat-sniffing dogs were trained, researchers visually searched areas for droppings. It was a time-consuming job that wasn't always easy. Some animals defecate conspicuously but others try to hide their dung. Even when found, some scat, such as black bear and grizzly bear, look so similar that they are easily confused.

Dogs make the process easier. They cover larger areas, faster and more accurately, using their powerful sense of smell. Canines can detect poop from hundreds of yards away, and find four times more samples than using other methods, such as visual observation or hair snags, said Samuel Wasser, director of The Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington in Seattle.

"It's really a powerful tool, and we do all this without ever seeing a single animal," he said.

When dealing with conservation issues, Wasser said it's important to monitor as many animals in as large of an area as possible to make the findings reliable.

Field studies in the United States and Canada have utilized scat dogs and soon they may be employed in Brazil for large-scale carnivore monitoring.

Bright Idea

Wasser came up with the idea of using dogs for this type of job six years ago and contacted Barbara Davenport, owner of Pack Leader Dog Training in Washington, for help.

So far, she has trained about 20 dogs, most of which came from humane societies or city pounds.

Davenport said she selects large, energetic mutts with a strong desire to play—the very same characteristics that cause them to end up in shelters in the first place.

"In most cases dogs that excel in scat-detector work are not adoptable to the general public," she said. "We're frequently the last stop for some of these dogs because they are so high energy, high drive"

It takes about six weeks from the time the dogs come out of the shelter to the time they go on assignment. A reward-based training method is used, and the dogs are taught to work independently, allowing different people to handle them in the field.

The canines can detect up to 18 species and differentiate between two animals with similar looking feces.

By Land and Sea

While most scat dogs work on land, a pilot study in August placed the pooches in a new environment—on boats.

Roz Rolland, senior scientist at New England Aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts, conducts population, health, and reproduction studies on North Atlantic right whales.

The 50-ton creatures live along the east coast of the United States and are among the most endangered whales in the world, totaling 350. Unlike southern species of right whales that have rebounded since being protected, she said the North Atlantic population has not increased.

To find out why, Rolland runs tests on their bright orange excrement.

Researchers locate the foul-smelling feces, which floats briefly before sinking, by following their noses. But the problem, she said, is not enough samples were being collected.

Last month Rolland, who is also a veterinarian, got help from some four-legged friends. Fargo, a three-year-old rottweiller, and Bob, a four-year-old beauceron mix, were sent on assignment to the Bay of Fundy in Maine, where a lot of the right whale population resides between July and October.

The canines worked on the bow of a 21-foot (6.4-meter) boat, searching the sea for floating feces. Handlers read the dogs' body language for clues on which direction to take the vessel.

Each dog has a unique change in behavior that is consistent whenever it smells a specific odor, says Davenport, the trainer. By looking for those changes in ear set, tail movement, breathing rate, and facial expression, as well as taking into account tide and wind direction, researchers were able to figure out where to go.

The 30-day study, funded by the National Marine Fisheries Service, worked "incredibly well," said Rolland, who declined to reveal the results until they are published in a scientific journal.

"The dogs really are impressive," she said. "They know their business."

Wasser hopes others will feel the same way. He and Davenport are opening a facility in Washington state within the next several months to train and certify scat detection dogs.

" The dogs are an incredibly valuable tool for gathering information," he said. "It's so much better than anything else I've seen out there by a long shot."

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