Conservation Dogs – Mother Nature’s Best Friend?

Dogs possess a unique blend of intelligence, resilience and sensitivity, which combined with their willingness to work with people who are committed to working with them has earned them the well-respected title of man’s best friend. As environmental awareness is increasing along with the recognition that we are experiencing an alarming loss of biodiversity, how can our loyal companions help us to safeguard the natural environment?

Now it is well known that dogs are already being put to good use in a variety of ways in modern society, whether it be detecting bombs, locating missing persons, sniffing out drugs or other illicit objects etc. Many of these roles are rooted in their detection skills, skills which are essential in the conservation sector. So how exactly are they able to provide us with such effective assistance? It’s predominately due to the power of that nose of course! Canine olfaction is seriously complex and we are still very much developing our understanding of this. But as we all know, those wet noses are packing some serious sniffing power. In fact, a large portion of a dog’s brain is directly related to smell and those little snouts contain up to 220 million olfactory receptor cells, compared to roughly 5 million receptors in the human nose. Needless to say we are profoundly outclassed when it comes to detecting scent!



Conservation Dogs, a unique detection service in the UK assist with conservation needs and ecological surveys by harnessing the power of these impressive noses. The working dogs can identify the scat (faeces) of pine marten, great crested newt (first organisation to achieve this), natterjack toad, dormice, bats and mice. Scat collection offers us a wealth of information such as species distribution, relative abundance, diet, health, habitat use and range size. Hormones and DNA can also be extracted from scat samples providing us with a further insight into the sex and reproductive status of individuals (helps us to determine population size), home range, paternity and kinship. This information is vital for the success and management of conservation initiatives. Current human methods of scat detection are often biased and have a high level of human error. Dogs are now not only proving to be more efficient, but are also cost effective, less invasive and can cover double the search area that a human team can cover.



However, it is not all just about sniffing out some poo. Conservation dogs also have the ability to detect and alert on specific scents of plants, allowing for the effective detection at the early stages of the infestation of an invasive species. Dogs are also used to locate carcasses to help estimate mortality and to ascertain whether the cause of death was physical or biological. For example, dogs are used to locate bat carcasses to determine the impact of non-renewable energy sources such as wind farms. Conservation Dogs are also working hard to improve the detection rate of illegal wildlife products, showing a huge success in a feasibility study whereby dogs identified ivory, shark fins, bush meat and even a pangolin hidden in the back of a truck.

©Conservation Dogs 2012

©Conservation Dogs 2012

Working Dogs for Conservation, based in Montana is at the forefront in the conservation detection dog field, aiming to monitor endangered wildlife, define wildlife corridors  and help eradicate invasive species. The team have trained and dispatched dogs across 18 states, 11 countries and have boldly sallied forth in ATVs, helicopters, and even on the backs of elephants! They are continuously tackling worldwide conservation issues head on, with one of the biggest being the coexistence between humans and carnivores. For example, the high density of large predators and livestock grazing in the extensive, wild rangelands of Africa makes living with carnivores difficult. But by combining detection with current genetic and molecular  techniques yields a wealth of information to help people share the rangelands with carnivores. By becoming aware of what is around you, you can take the effective measures needed to prevent future conflict.

Locating wild Asian elephant dung in Myanmar ©S.Hedges/WCS

Locating wild Asian elephant dung in Myanmar ©S.Hedges/WCS

So what makes a good conservation dog? Each dog requires a significant amount of training (along with the handler) but those who are intensely focused with an insatiable urge to play make the ideal candidates. In fact it is often the obsessive and high energy personalities that end up in animal shelters. So the growing popularity of this non-invasive wildlife detection method is not only beneficial for conservation objectives, but also for the dogs themselves, giving them an extremely rewarding and satisfying second chance.

Conservation is my passion and in the next step of my journey to employment I have accepted a new job at my local animal rescue centre. I will be working closely with the dogs at the centre, looking to learn more about their behaviour and seeking opportunities to develop my handling and training skills. By combining the skills and knowledge I gain from this opportunity with those gained from my background in conservation, I am hoping to enhance my professional development and open up new doors in my path to employment in the conservation sector.

If you would like to know a little more then check out this fantastic talk by Megan Parker and her coworker Pepin of Working Dogs for Conservation. Enjoy!

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