These dogs put their noses to the ground to help protect wildlife

Dogs are well-known for their ability to sniff out explosives, drugs, and even cancer, but a team of scientists is putting our four-legged friends to work on a new task in Montana and beyond: researching wildlife. 

Ecologist Megan Parker is one of the scientists trying to gain a more detailed picture of how wild animals like wolves, bears, and cougars are using a protected swath of land in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. To do this, she treks across the landscape with her partner, Pepin, a Belgian Malinois. 

Pepin trots along near Parker and drops to his haunches when he sniffs out animal dung. The prevalence of scat is one of the clearest indications of what populations are crossing the landscape and how frequently. Pepin can even sniff out scat that has been buried in an icy river. 

Parker is a part of Working Dogs for Conservation (WD4C), a non-profit that uses dogs’ unique sniffing skills to protect wild animals. In addition to finding wildlife tracks in Yellowstone, dogs from the organization have also detected wild elephants in the tropical rainforests of Myanmar and followed cheetahs and lions across the African savannah. The dogs are so skilled, they can even be trained to smell out whether a stream has non-native trout swimming in it. 

In The Great Lakes region, these dogs are being used to detect invasive zebra mussels that disrupt food chains and clog up underwater power plant cooling systems. Juvenile zebra mussels are as small as a poppyseed, but they can’t hide from a K9 nose.

In Oregon’s Willamette Valley, a wildflower called Kincaid’s lupine that supports the even more rare Fender’s blue butterfly is highly endangered. The flower and butterfly populations dropped dramatically in numbers after development projects overtook the valley. Researchers are using K9 teams to sniff out areas of ecologic importance for both the flower and the butterfly and using their evidence to seek state protection for these designated areas. So far they’ve been able to locate 30 critical regions in the valley that actively support the species.

Dogs have a sense of smell 10,000 times stronger than a human’s, but not just any dog can be a wildlife-sniffing professional. Some dogs on the team come from specially bred litters, but others are located at local shelters or are dropouts from other specialized programs, like Guide Dogs for the Blind. Trainers visit these shelters and look for high energy dogs eager to please. After being selected, the dogs go through a rigorous training and evaluation process. All said and done, one in maybe 600 selected dogs makes the cut to be a pro wildlife smeller. 

Image Source: WD4C

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