Once unwanted dogs now experts in conservation

Conservation Stray dog -- The Hot Mess Press

Have you ever arrived at a friend’s house where their pet dog almost knocks you down from excitement? Regardless of the hours spent in obedience training, some dogs just never learn to control their excessive excitement. Many of them end up in shelters after being passed on to several homes. Lily, Hilo, Orbee, Jax, Tule, Tobias, Seamus, Pepin and Wicket either were strays or adopted from shelters. The one thing they all had in common is their love for their special toys. Another thing they have in common now is their conservation skills. That’s where the brilliance of Megan Parker comes in.

Shelter dog
Unwanted Shelter Dog

Working Dogs for Conservation (WD4C)

Megan Parker is a wildlife biologist and an expert in the training and use of dogs for conservation. She explains that these overactive dogs are obsessed with their toys. So much so that they will do anything, knowing that they will get to play with their favorite toys afterward. With their incredible skills, they catch smugglers, poachers, sniff out invasive plants and diseases, and track endangered species, and a whole lot more.

The number of olfactory receptors that give dogs their incredible sense of smell is approximately 300 million. In comparison, humans have about 6 million receptors. This, along with their never-ending energy source, made them perfect candidates to train for tracking wolves through their droppings. Megan Parker’s adventure started when authorities reintroduced wolves to Yellowstone Park. She gave many dogs a new lease on life when she had them trained for that task, and they met all her expectations. Many WD4C canines now work on earth-friendly projects across the globe. Hilo, a black Lab, failed as a guide dog for a blind person but he excels as an orange-vest-wearing leader of conservation canines.

Lily, the yellow Lab trained for conservation

Yellow Labrador

Lily joined WD4C in 2011 at age three. She landed in a shelter after living in five separate homes. A real little whiner who couldn’t stop bouncing and playing with her toy has since learned to recognize as many as 12 conservation-related scents. In a U.S. and Canadian project to prevent emerald ash borers from killing millions of trees, Lily sniffed out the insect’s eggs, beetles and larvae. She also worked as a tracker of grizzly bears.

Orbee, a Border collie and globe-trotting conservation dog

Border Collie

Orbee, like Hilo, failed at the job her owner intended. Although his high energy level was perfect to work as a ranch dog, he had absolutely no interest in sheep herding. His love to bark disqualified him for ranch work. However, since 2009, Orbee has traveled across the world. He worked on boats in Montana and Alberta to spot invasive zebra and quagga mussels. In California, his job was to monitor endangered San Joaquin kit foxes’ habitats. He worked in northern Africa on a project counting the rare Cross River gorillas.

Jax’s conservation skills exceeded his military skills

Belgian Malinois Dog

Jax, a Belgian malinois that is a breed mostly used by military and police, clearly disliked biting people. Instead he couldn’t get enough of biting his toys. His high spirits, efforts to climb a tree to get to a toy and athletic skills made him the perfect candidate for WD4C’s project mapping bobcat’s movement in Western U.S.

Tule’s skills perfect for conservation

Belgian Malinois Dog

Parker says WD4C places dogs to optimize their respective skill sets. Tule, also a Belgian malinois, failed in working with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. WD4C found that Tule lacked the desire to chase after squirrels, rabbits, cats and other small animals. Instead, she is the perfect canine for tracking live ferrets, which were once extinct in the U.S. and reintroduced in Wyoming.

Tobias, once a stray now an expert in conservation

Conservation Yellow Lab

WD4C found Tobias roaming the Helena streets in Montana. After skills training, he was off to California, where he searched Santa Cruz Island for Argentina ants. He outworked humans in detecting invasive mussels clinging to watercraft and boats. When tested, humans identified only 75% of affected vessels, and Tobias got 100%. He even detected the mussels’ microscopic larvae, and he did it all much quicker than the humans.

Border Collie sniffs out invasive weed

Mount Sentinel in Montana is the home of dyer’s woad. This invasive plant has outlived all human efforts to eradicate it. However, Seamus, a former shelter dog and three canine co-workers sniff out the plants when they are still too small for humans to detect. Before WD4C was involved, humans identified the weeds by their flowers. however, by then the flowers had dropped millions of seeds. Fortunately, Seamus and his team have shown that, with time, complete extermination is possible.

Pepin can recognize 20 different wildlife scents

Conservation black Labrador

Pepin’s skills vary wildly. From sniffing out the presence of the invasive brook trout in rivers in the Western U.S. to tracking wolverines, cheetahs and wolverines by their scat or droppings. Furthermore, Pepin is also involved in a trial program of detecting a bacterial disease, brucellosis, in herds of cattle. Early diagnosis is critical, but cattle show no early symptoms. This project is still in the testing phase.

Wicket retired after 12 years with WD4C

WD4C adopted Wicket from a shelter in 2005, where she lived for six months. Her barking chased away any potential owners. By the time she retired, her record showed she had detected the scents of 32 wildlife species. She achieved this  across 18 states and seven different countries.

All for the prospect of a favorite toy as a reward

Other earth-friendly activities of the WD4C canine crew involve a 5-year study of the migratory pathway of wolves, mountain lions, black bears and grizzly bears. The study results indicated that all four these keystone carnivores’ existence depends on their ability to migrate. They migrated between the wilderness areas of central Idaho and the ecosystem of the Greater Yellowstone area. Based on this information conservation activists stopped a housing development planned for construction across this migratory pathway.

Conservation Dogs playing with toys

The need for their toys is what motivates the WD4C canines to do even more than mentioned above. In Hawaii, they track the predatory cannibal Rosy wolf snails. In Zambia, they sniff out poachers’ guns and elephant ivory, and in Tajikistan, they prevent trafficking of snow leopards.

This is precisely what I meant when I wrote, “Is there anything that dogs cannot sniff out?” in a Sept. 2020 post.

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