"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.

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