There are two consistent truths in the conservation industry:
1. No one works in conservation for money, fame, or easy success. The work is difficult, time consuming, and often thankless. Still, you do it because truly passionate about the good you are accomplishing.
2. You cannot succeed on your own. You need to consistently enlist help.
Sometimes the help comes in the form of a four-legged assistant who can make the work more efficient and effective, and also add a dose of joy to the job. And sometimes all the thanks you really need after a long day in the field is the wagging tail and gentle, panting smile of your sidekick.
Such is the case with the dogs of Conservation Canines.
For the last 18 years, Conservation Canines has been rescuing dogs and training them to work in scent detection for the Center for Conservation Biology at University of Washington.
The non-profit doesn’t select just any dog. “We work with the juvenile delinquents of the dog world,” Heath Smith tells me as we stand on the grass outside the kennel, throwing a ball for one of the newest recruits.
Smith is the Program Coordinator and has been with the program for 14 years. He’s seen an incredible array of dogs come and go, but there are two things that, despite age, breed, or size, they all have in common: endless energy and an insatiable ball drive.
This combination is usually the reason why the dogs fail as pets and end up in a shelter in the first place, with many of them on a fast track to be euthanized. Most families don’t want an overly energetic, toy-obsessed dog as a pet. They bring the dogs to the shelter (if the dog is lucky) and the dogs sit and wait for a prospective new owner to take interest -- something that is unlikely to ever happen once it is clear just how much daily exercise they require simply to stay sane, and how much daily training they require just to make them a remotely enjoyable companion.
Yet these very characteristics that make them a nightmare of a pet, make them ideal working dogs. Once they are given a job that exercises both their brains and bodies, the dogs can thrive — moving away from being a problem dog and into being a problem-solving dog.
It is not just the lives of dogs that the program saves. The future of dozens of species in dozens of ecosystems around the world also need the help of these smart, driven dogs.
The dogs in the Conservation Canines program are trained to detect the scat of multiple species, and they are deployed into the field to lead handlers to these treasures of information.
Scat can provide a wealth of data to researchers, including which species are present, the abundance of the species, what the animals are eating, the status of their health, even whether or not females are pregnant, and so much more. The importance of scat to a study can’t be understated, and to be able to use dogs to quickly collect scat of one or several target species in a large range over often rugged terrain is a tremendous asset.
Conservation Canines notes, “Sampling with detection dogs tends to be far less biased compared to traditional wildlife detection methods (remote cameras, radio-collaring, hair snags, and trapping). No other method can acquire such a vast amount of reliable information in so short a time, making this approach incredibly valuable for conservation planners and land managers.”
I recently went into the field with three handlers and three dogs doing work in the wilds of a national park in Washington. Suzie Marlow was paired with Jack, a cattle dog and new recruit to the program. Jennifer Hartman was partnered up with Scooby, a leggy black Labrador mix. And Julianne Ubigau was paired with her old friend Sampson, a black Labrador.
While Jack is fairly new to the program, Sampson and Scooby each have seven years under their belts. Both were adopted in 2008, and since then have learned to reliably and consistently detect an amazing variety of species.
Sampson’s resume sticks more closely with North American species, including wolverine, American pine marten, Sierra red fox, northern spotted owl, barred owl, Pacific pocket mouse, lynx, sea turtle nests, Mt. Jemez salamander, moose, woodland caribou, white-tailed deer, gray wolf, cougar, bobcat, and swift fox.
Meanwhile, Scooby has learned to detect a more exotic array of wildlife. His list of species includes wolverine, gray wolf, moose, woodland caribou, Indochinese tiger, Asian leopard, puma, jaguar, cheetah, lion, caracal, serval, wild dog, spotted hyena, tapir, grizzly bear, black bear, bobcat, white-tailed deer, mink, and fisher.
These two dogs may have the longest list of species, but each of the dogs in Conservation Canines is trained in multiple species. This allows them to be deployed to many different sites and be useful for various studies.
The ability to find multiple species is especially important for the particular study underway during my trip, which is looking at how the different carnivore species are utilizing the park. The dogs are on the look-out for wolf, coyote, cougar and bobcat, as well as white-tailed deer, a common prey species. The goal is to collect scat that will ultimately provide insight on things like the density of the different species, their territories, their health, and of course what they are eating. All of this together provides a picture of the health of the entire ecosystem.
I arrived shortly after the team began their four weeks of field work. They managed to find accommodations by renting the guest house of a wonderfully kind retired couple who had built a home along a river. The couple seemed overjoyed to host their guests who are, let's admit, a lot more interesting than the average traveler. And, compared to the usual accommodations of a smelly tent pitched in a campsite or clearing in the woods, this was pure luxury for the team.
Each morning of field work requires the team to split up, each handler and dog team taking a "cell" of a few square miles to loop through, the dogs sniffing out scat and the handlers collecting samples and noting down data. After a few mugs of coffee and a bit of breakfast, we piled into the vehicles and headed out to the day's sites.
I trailed Julie and Sampson for the first half of the day, and Jennifer and Scooby for the afternoon, doing my best to keep up with their speedy movement up and down hills and ravines, across streams, down old logging roads, and through "chopstick" terrain of fallen trees crisscrossing one another.
One thing that became quickly clear is that each team has a style, a way their personalities click. The job is technically identical for each team: dog finds scat, dog alerts handler, handler rewards dog and collects scat, team moves on. But that is where the similarities end.
Julie and Sampson move rapidly and smoothly over the terrain. They both exude a confident but buzzing energy. Julie lets Sampson set the pace but because Sampson is older, Julie is very aware of how far he is going and minimizes his extra movement as much as possible.
Both handlers and dogs wear tracking devices to monitor how far they go, and the goal for Julie is that she and Sampson travel around the same distance. Other younger, more energetic dogs might travel as much as 60-80 percent more than the distance their handlers travel, as they run here and there following scents and paying ball throughout their day.
The health of the dogs is a top priority for the handlers; Julie knows Sampson won't quit until he drops so she plays the role of coach, reeling him in and keeping extra running at a minimum so his body stays as fresh and rested as possible.
Meanwhile, Jennifer and Scooby have a different energy. While Sampson reminds me a bit of a trusty NASCAR, Scooby reminds me of a bullet train -- one on which passengers barely have time to get aboard before it is speeding to the next stop. Indeed, Scooby has a habit of leaving Jennifer behind and heading to the next scat before she is done processing the first one.
Trotting quickly but steadily, he finds his target and sits, waiting (almost) patiently until Jenniter (finally!) gets to it. He hangs around for his reward and a short break but as soon as she shows signs of wrapping up, he is off again.
It is understandable to me now why each handler has their favorite dogs that they like to work with best.
"When handlers come aboard and meet the dogs, I ask them right away which is their favorite dog," says Smith. "When they tell me who it is, I let them know that's the very last dog they'll work with."
Smith has a strategy for what may seem like a mean trick. It is far too easy to fall into a rut as a handler if you immediately find and stick with a dog whose personality clicks with yours, that lets you stay in your comfort zone as a handler.
Instead, by working with dogs they don't understand as easily, who frustrate them or have strange quirks they have to work through, the handler gains experience in all the many ins and outs of working with dogs. He or she is more likely to learn tiny nuances to dog body language and behaviors, and will be provided with important opportunities to grow as a trainer.
Without that kind of experience, handlers will stay limited on what dogs they can work with, and thus what studies they can be hired to work on. The future of the nonprofit is in providing the best dogs working with the best handlers to be able to collect the highest quality samples in any terrain or situation.
To this end, the program works every bit as hard to train their handlers on the subtleties of working with dogs as they spend training the dogs in scat detection. This way, the dog and handler together can be as effective as possible in any study.
And yet, such bouncing around from dog to dog does not detract from the extraordinary bond handlers develop with their sidekicks. It seems to actually strengthen it.
Not only do handlers gain the skills they need to work with any of the dogs in the kennel, but they have a deeper appreciation for those dogs with whom they do simply click, the dogs that they very well may adopt as their own when he or she retires from field work.
There may be favorites, but there is no doubt that every dog in the program is loved. I noticed something with every single handler I met: the expression in their eyes change when they look at the dogs. There is a gentleness that overcomes them, a softening at the edges of their eyes, that makes obvious the fact that they do what they do because they love it, and because they love their four-legged coworkers.
After six or so hours of hiking through the woods with the two teams, I was wiped out. With legs that felt like jelly and sore spots where the straps of my pack had rubbed against my hips, I considered the fact that these teams do this every day, taking a day off every few days to let the dogs rest while the handlers catch up on "office" work. It is an incredible amount of energy that goes into the job, and yet, it is nothing compared to the amount of time and energy that would be required were dogs not in the picture.
While a human alone could have found a fair amount of scat while keeping an eye out along the path they were walking, it would have taken easily a day or two to find the amount that the dogs found in just the few hours we were out. There's just no denying it: a nose and four paws on the ground is one of the greatest assets a biologist can have in the field.
The job is also one of the greatest assets that energetic, obsessive dogs can have. It is abundantly clear that the work is a game to these dogs -- a game they love to play and will play all day and into the night if the handlers let them. The go-go-go spirit of the dogs is endless, as is the patience and care of the handlers. Without this job as an outlet for their play drive and energy, many of these dogs would have been ushered out of this world without having been given a chance to show all they have to offer.
This combination of rescuing dogs while working toward species and habitat preservation is what drew me to Conservation Canines in the first place. I have been following their work for several years now and this year couldn't resist diving in to see how I could help out.
I am creating a 12-month calendar that will be sold to raise funds for the program. I have selected portraits of 12 of the Conservation Canines dogs I met while staying with them to turn into a beautifully crafted full-color, press-printed calendar.
I am working on a completely volunteer basis; every last penny of funds raised through calendar sales goes directly to benefit the Conservation Canines program. Your purchase of the calendar will not only help these once forgotten dogs but also benefit wildlife species worldwide.
My time out in the field with the handlers and dogs, and the time I spent at the training facility, are days I will not quickly forget. The job that Conservation Canines performs is tough, both emotionally and physically. But the joy of the dogs and the satisfaction of knowing they are truly making a difference around the world makes all that effort and energy worthwhile. Plus, there are belly rubs involved, and that is a win for everyone.