Dogs collecting data: Behind the scenes with K9 Conservationists
An orange-vested border collie trots ahead of a group of field biologists, nose to the ground. His bell jingles as he turns 180°, skirting along the edge of the dense jungle. He stops abruptly and lies down, glancing over his shoulder at me. I take a few steps and gasp, “Oh, interesting!”
A pile of quills, bones, scat, and old tissue lies between Barley’s front paws. The biologists gather around, squatting and putting on gloves to poke through what Barley has found. He waits, quivering in anticipation. One scientist confirms that Barley is correct: He’s found where an ocelot killed a prehensile-tailed porcupine. Grinning, I give Barley’s marker word (“catch”) and throw a squeaky ball for him.
Barley and I first met six years earlier, when I was a recent ecology graduate working as a dog behavior consultant in a large open-admission shelter. Barley was all confidence and brains and energy. He had absolutely no brakes. A well-meaning family clung to the reins of sanity with him for three years before making the heart wrenching decision to relinquish him. When we met, I was looking for a dog that had the potential to be a working dog. Barley sparkled.
A job for Barley
Barley is a conservation detection dog, one of five “employed” by K9 Conservationists. This team of socially awkward, toy-crazed herding dogs travels the world with their human handlers to work on conservation projects. From wolf diet in Alaska to bat fatality monitoring on midwestern wind farms, these dogs put their fantastic noses to work to help understand wild animals.
When Barley found the prehensile-tailed porcupine carcass and ocelot scat, we were several days into a field project in the dense jungle of northern Guatemala. Day after day, we trekked through the Maya Biosphere Preserve searching for scats of elusive carnivores to help researchers at the Wildlife Conservation Society and Oregon State University figure out exactly what these critters were eating.
All told, Barley and his co-worker Niffler found about 60 scats in less than two weeks. DNA results show jaguars, pumas, ocelots, margays, tayras, and jaguarundis. Ellen Dymit, a PhD student at Oregon State University, will analyze the scats to figure out who’s eating whom in this complex jungle ecosystem.
Sniffing scat for science
Like many animal professionals, most of our job is poop. The dogs are trained to sniff out the scat of a specific species while ignoring the scats of other animals. For each scat, they get to play a bit of fetch. We collect the poop, take notes on the local conditions, and mark its location on a GPS.
The dogs are often faster and more effective at finding scat than human searchers, especially in dense vegetation or when scats are hard to see. This collection technique is far less stressful for wild animals than if those animals were being trapped for a blood draw. Once collected, those scats are sent to the lab where they can be analyzed for diet, relatedness, parasite load, and more.
Just a few decades ago this sort of poo-powered research would be impossible—the molecular techniques for analyzing fecal DNA weren’t advanced enough. Researchers are constantly developing new strategies for using poop to solve mysteries such as what wild animals eat, how they use the environment, and how that may be changing due to deforestation or climate change.
The dogs that detect data
Conservation dog trainers look for a very specific type of dog to partner with. Almost any dog can do the sniffing part of this job (pugs outperformed German shepherds in a detection dog study in 2015).
However, we need more than a good nose. We need dogs that have the physique to safely cover many miles every day, which rules out brachycephalic breeds, long-backed and short-legged breeds, and individuals with health concerns. We also prefer dogs that are large enough to give hawks and coyotes pause, but small enough that we can plausibly carry them to the truck in an emergency.
From there it’s a matter of confirming that the dog wants the job. There’s really no way to force a dog to do this sort of work, so it’s all about finding a dog with that spark. Each of our dogs is over-the-top fetch-crazed; the sort of dog that prances into a vet practice with a toy in its mouth and has to be dragged away from the college Ultimate Frisbee tournament after rushing the field.
In my first months with Barley, I repeatedly melted into tears when my beloved dog refused to pet, eat, or interact in any way other than fetch. My boyfriend asked if we could send Barley back, but I knew there was no way Barley and I would ever be apart again.
Ideally, these dogs love toys so much that they’ll readily ignore a squirrel or a deer if we’ve got a ball. While our fieldwork doesn’t require a dog that’s comfortable with kids or other dogs, we generally prefer confident dogs to aid in travel and outreach events.
Border collies are our breed of choice currently, but other organizations specialize in working with spaniels, heelers, shepherds, and labs. Mutts and mixed-breeds are as common as purpose-bred dogs.
The people training the pups
Of course, even the most promising dog needs intensive and ongoing training. The humans on our team are dedicated positive reinforcement–based trainers with decades of experience in training detection dogs.
We love and believe in what we do, but the job is not without challenges. We live with multiple extremely high-drive and high-energy dogs, spending every single day meeting the physical and mental needs of these canine superathletes. Much of our time is swept up in proposals and budgets. The dogs’ needs don’t pause for any of our other deadlines. Like many other animal-related fields, the pay is terrible.
When we’re in the field, we often battle heat, bugbites, sunburn, windburn, ticks, predawn 4WD roads, and thick underbrush. We stretch and massage the dogs and enter data when all we want to do is shower and sleep.
We absolutely love it. For the right person, there is no cooler job on the planet—but it’s not easy!
Most conservation detection dog handlers have at least a bachelor’s degree in ecology or a related field. We often have a CV full of field technician positions, dog training certificates, wilderness first aid courses, and zoo, shelter, or veterinary work.
A role for veterinary staff
Caring for a pack of working dogs is no small feat. These dogs are serious canine athletes—with the training regimens, supplement routines, and injury history to prove it. Our handlers are constantly studying canine fitness, first aid, trap releases, snake avoidance, and wildlife interactions. Even with all the safety precautions in the world, jet-powered dogs tend to find a way to wear their bodies out.
In 2021, Barley suffered significant necrosis from a probable brown recluse bite; a year later he tore his TPLO and had to go through surgery and rehab. Both injuries happened off the job. Another working dog got a foxtail up his nose at work this summer and earned himself an emergency vet visit.
Two of our dogs regularly see a sports medicine vet to help them stay strong and pain-free. The dogs also need heavy-duty parasite prevention. Barley contracted Ehrlichia and anaplasmosis in Central America despite a permethrin jacket, Bravecto treatment, and three to five tick-checks every day.
Other working dogs are often embedded within an agency that supports veterinary care or has sponsorship to cover their veterinary care. Currently, the K9 Conservationists team pays for veterinary care out-of-pocket even though the humans don’t earn a salary.
We are looking for veterinarians willing to partner with us on canine care. The team is currently located in Missoula, Montana, Fort Collins, Colorado, and Corvallis, Oregon. Some consultations can also be done remotely or while we travel.
Clearly, our work would not be possible without the support of veterinarians. We rely heavily on our community to ensure that our dogs are happy, healthy, and ready to work. Aside from veterinarians, we also lean on our friends in animal shelters, dog training, welfare, and community organizations to meet the needs of our growing team.
Get involved with K9 Conservationists
If you are interested in learning more about conservation detection dogs, K9 Conservationists (k9conservationists.org) has a free podcast with over 150 past episodes and new ones all the time. We also offer a virtual coaching club through Patreon and an 18-week online handler course.
Kayla Fratt is currently a PhD student and NSF-GRFP Fellow at Oregon State University in Taal Levi's lab. Her research there focuses on island biogeography effects on diet and movement for the sea wolves in southeast Alaska and basic natural history of pumas in El Salvador.
Cover photo credit: © Iuliia Zavalishina E+ via Getty Images Plus
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