A Nose for Conservation

Rescue dogs are a tool for helping conserve at-risk species

The alarm clock rattles the human awake. The prospect of coffee sweetens the cruelty of the ungodly hour.

It’s 3 a.m. in a huge garage that’s been converted into an ample live/work space. Julianne Ubigau requires some coaxing to begin her day. Sampson, 65 pounds of solid muscle and smarts, is fully awake. A bowl of kibble helps.

It takes just 90 seconds for Pips to find scat hidden behind a training wall.

For weeks now, theirs is a carefully planned and efficient routine out here in lonesome Cusick, Pend Oreille County, the most northeastern corner of the state. Ubigau hauls an ice chest into the back of her truck. She packs up her electronic gadgets, Ziploc baggies, swabs and tiny plastic vials. Sampson jumps into a crate in the back seat. Two other handlers, with their own vehicles and their own dogs, follow suit, determined to put in hours of physical work in the mountains before the daytime heat thwarts their goal.

The two- and four-legged members of Conservation Canines work in teams throughout the world—Africa, Europe, Mexico as well as in old growth forests and the mountains closer to home. Their work offers up a unique and detailed look at the ecosystem through what they collect. They find and analyze excrement—scat, poop, feces, dung, droppings—the list of synonyms goes on. Frass, for example. That’s the name for what insects deposit (remember that the next time you play Scrabble). A Conservation Canine dog can locate caterpillar frass that looks like pepper grains. Those grains, in turn, can help answer a whole host of scientific questions.

For example: How many animals are in a specific area? What do they eat? If we go up the food chain, who might be eating them? If you analyze their cortisol levels, the scat can tell you if the animal was stressed. Its progesterone metabolites—has it reproduced?

The thing about scat, explains Sam Wasser, the founder and director of the nonprofit Conservation Canines program that’s based at the University of Washington, is that it’s loaded with information. Think of it the way a blood sample can generate a bunch of data. Take the time to analyze scat DNA and hormones and eventually a nuanced portrait of our natural world emerges.

The dogs have been trained to identify scat from up to 12 species including (clockwise from top left): grizzly, moose, spotted owl, wolf, orca, leopard.
The dogs have been trained to identify scat from up to 12 species including (clockwise from top left): grizzly, moose, spotted owl, wolf, orca, leopard. Illustration by Hum.

And the research begins with a method that’s noninvasive—no snares nor traps nor any contact with an animal. Combine that with the fact that these dogs can collect a huge number of samples over a large area of landscape and what you have, Wasser says, is “a powerful, unprecedented tool.”

Conservation Canines works for federal and state wildlife agencies, non-governmental organizations, university researchers and private companies. Most of its research focuses on analyzing the scat of endangered or threatened species: spotted owl, fisher, Oregon silverspot butterfly.

But the dogs also can identify kill sites, snares, invasive plants and bat roosts. And they’re not limited to just working on land.

A dog named Tucker routinely rides a boat that courses through the Salish Sea near the San Juans. His assignment: locate orca scat. By wagging his tail, adjusting his position and whimpering, he signals when and where the boat should turn. Depending on the wind current, he can identify orca scat from as far as one nautical mile away. The researchers scoop up what often looks like snot and smells, well, like salmon.

Wasser, a research professor in the Department of Biology, pioneered the idea of using dogs to hunt scat back in 1997. The state had just banned hound hunting of mid-sized and large carnivores. “It occurred to me that maybe I could put those handlers to work for conservation,” he says. Wasser quickly learned, though, that he didn’t need dogs that keep their noses to the ground and track but dogs that keep their heads up and sniff the air.

The thing about scat is that it's loaded with information.
Sam Wasser

He found support for his idea with the state Department of Corrections and its drug-sniffing dogs. Or rather, with the dogs who failed at detecting contraband. His dogs’ first success was finding scat that identified the first grizzly bear on Goat Peak in Okanogan County.

Since then, these dogs have been able to help identify the habitat of grizzly bears in Alberta as well as of the tiny Pacific pocket mouse in San Diego. Without having to rip open logs, the dogs located the elusive Jemez Mountains salamander in New Mexico. This year, they were headed to the Midwest to find bird and bat carcasses; to Alaska to hunt for bat roosts and to South Africa and Mozambique to locate cheetah, lion and wild dog scat.

The program currently employs six handlers and 17 dogs. The handlers mostly have science backgrounds (although there is an English major) as well as the physical and mental stamina to be able to work remotely in often rural areas for long stretches of time. The dogs are all types—Australian Cattle, Jack Russell Terrier, Labradors, Golden Retriever mix. They’re also very lucky: the majority of dogs have been rescued from shelters along with a few surrendered by owners who no longer can handle them.

The key to being a successful scat detection dog is having what appears to be an unquenchable desire to play with a ball. “The most important thing out here for Sampson,” handler Julianne Ubigau says about a rubber ball she keeps in a zippered pocket at her waist. Out in the Colville National Forest, sunlight is starting to awaken an inky morning sky. Ubigau fastens a harness and a bear bell onto Sampson, an 11-year-old black lab with just the tiniest bit of white hair above his foot pads.

Ubigau found him online in 2008. Ball crazy dog, read his Seattle Animal Shelter profile. “Sure enough,” she recalls, “he was crazy.” He’d bounced around to different shelters; his good looks could not charm prospective owners who didn’t stand a chance against the allure of a ball. “In the Meet and Greet, once he made eye contact with a bucket of tennis balls, he was gone. Barking, barking, barking. He just wanted to play.”

Conservation Canines banks on that play obsession. It’s how the handlers motivate the dogs to spend hours climbing through backcountry, jungle or tundra.

At a facility in Eatonville, housed at the UW’s Center for Sustainable Forestry at Pack Forest, the dogs are trained on individual scat that’s hidden in and behind different scent boxes and walls. If you’re a beginner dog, you get the ball thrown the second you find the scat. And effusive praise follows. If you’re well on your way to being out in the field, you have to sniff out the scat, run back to your handler, deliver the handler to the scat when the handler says “Show me” and “Sit.” The ball is tossed but there’s a whole lot less throwing because the handler then has to collect and process whatever specimen has been found.

Sampson waits patiently while handler Julianne Ubigau processes scat in the Colville National Forest.

Which can be terribly frustrating if you’re, say, Sampson, tail wagging, with a face that looks unquestionably proud because on this morning he’s sniffed out what appears to be coyote scat. “We wouldn’t have ever found that without Sampson’s nose,” Ubigau says. She tosses a lime green ball; Sampson retrieves it. But after another couple of tosses, Ubigau takes a nearby stick to what looks like dry, woody-flecked dirt. “Rest,” she tells him. Sampson nudges the ball towards her and when she’s not responsive, he whines.

In July, Ubigau and Sampson and two other dog teams bushwhacked through the Colville and Kaniksu National Forests as part of a two-year, privately funded wolf study. About 70 wolves live in the state and this is where most of them can be found. Since being hunted nearly to extinction, wolves have been returning to a landscape that has been logged, ranched, mined and farmed. “Can a wolf restabilize an ecosystem or does it create more chaos?” Wasser asks. That’s what the study hopes to help answer in looking at data about both predator and prey. In the meantime, Sampson, Scooby, Ranger and the rest of their furry colleagues will be out in the forest in pursuit of carnivore scat and the almighty, oh-so-desirable reward of a rubbery ball.

 

DOG FACTS

Personality

Obsessed with playing ball, which allows them to work long hours in remote areas under all kinds of conditions.

Trained to ID

Grizzly Bear, Moose, Leopard, Pine Marten, Fisher, Spotted Owl, Short-Tailed Weasel, Orca and more.

Background

Rescued from shelters or surrendered by their owners.

Types

Australian Cattle Dog, Labrador, Golden Retriever, Jack Russell Terrier.

  • Florangela Davila

    Florangela Davila is the editor of Ampersand and the producer of Ampersand LIVE, a stage show.
  • Glenn Nelson

    Glenn Nelson is a photographer, journalist and founder of The Trail Posse.

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