Unleashed: Exploring the Work of Conservation Dogs

Imagine a wildlife research project that takes you face to face with a jaguar in Guatemala, thanks to the good work of your conservation dog. Man’s best friend has a long history of aiding humans, from offering assistance to people with disabilities, to herding livestock, and rescuing those lost or trapped. However, certain canines are now working for wildlife, and are becoming increasingly popular resources for researchers in the wildlife and conservation field. 

Using their incredible sense of smell, conservation dogs are trained to sniff out plants or wildlife signs that elude humans. Dog’s sense of smell has been reported to be 10,000 – 100,000 times as strong as the average person, and they can detect scents at concentrations as low as one part per trillion. With this superpower, the tasks dogs can tackle are almost limitless, and conservationists have found creative ways of putting our four-legged friends to work.  

A leaf holding a scat sample can be seen in focus. Out of focus, a black and white dog can be seen.
Barley, one of K9 Conservationist’s top dogs, successfully locates mesocarnivore scat samples deep in the jungles of northern Guatemala. Credit: Kayla Fratt

Barking up the right tree

Hawai’i, sometimes referred to as “the extinction capital of the world,” is home to many species of birds endemic to the islands, meaning they are only found in Hawai’i. Therefore, conservation efforts are imperative to stop the decline. However, conservation canines are working like dogs to assist scientists in slowing the rate that these avian species are disappearing. In Hawai’i’s volcanic landscape, four-legged detective Slater sniffs out the elusive ‘ake’ake or band-rumped storm petrel, a rare and endangered seabird. Rugged terrain and the birds’ elusive nature makes traditional tracking difficult, but Slater’s nose proves to be most effective in pinpointing burrows. Meanwhile, in Hawai’i’s wetlands, conservation canines are on the front lines combating avian botulism, a fatal disease threatening bird populations. Despite the dense vegetation hindering human searching, detection dogs excel in sniffing out carcasses, significantly improving disease prevention efforts. 

In the Midwest, English pointers Gabby and Sage are on a mission with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to scour the thick forests for heavily camouflaged American woodcock nests. Once the dogs work their magic and detect the nests, biologists swoop in to band the chicks. It’s a paw-some partnership that’s paying off big time! This data helps scientists study woodcock populations in order to better manage the species, and thanks to Gabby and Sage’s work, today Michigan leads the United States in banded woodcocks by the thousands. 

A brown and white spotted dog on a leash is searching among tall grasses.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Python Detection Dog Team sniffs out invasive Burmese pythons. Credit: Carol Lyn Parrish/FWC

Additionally, as invasive mussels such as zebra and quagga mussels continue to threaten many midwestern and western states, conservation dogs are on the paw-trol! These mussels have unleashed havoc on ecosystems, from outcompeting native species to clogging water treatment pipes and creating mussel mayhem on docks, beaches, and boats. A study by the United States Geological Survey estimated that these invasive mussels cause up to one billion dollars of damage across the United States per year. 

So far, Montana has been lucky and successfully eluded a population of these waterborne invaders. Yet, the state remains vigilant, employing conservation canines to sniff out any potential mussel mischief. These talented pups aren’t just finding concealed mussels; they’re also on the scent of microscopic larvae ensuring that no threats slip through the cracks and contaminate western waterways. With their noses to the grindstone, these dogs are leading the charge to keep Montana’s waters pristine and free of invasive mussels. 

Teaching a dog new tricks

Working with conservation dogs requires extensive time, training, and dedication according to Kayla Fratt, a co-founder of K9 Conservationists. But the payoff is considerable.

Fratt emphasized that conservation dogs need specific traits to be effective at their jobs, and good candidates include Labrador Retrievers, Belgian Malinois, German Shepherds, as well as Border Collies and Heelers.

“You tend to basically see a lot of the hunting, pointing, retrieving breeds as well as the herding breeds. So we’re generally looking for medium-sized athletic dogs that are easily motivated to work closely with people.”

The dogs undergo extensive scent and recall training as well. She noted that the dogs are trained to sniff out a given odor in order to get their favorite toy. 

“So usually, we’re looking for dogs that are crazy for toys, and then they start learning that if they find a given odor, then they get their ball,” she said, adding that dogs need to learn specific search pattern and safety skills as to make sure that once dogs find wildlife they can automatically disengage.

While this groundbreaking approach to conservation offers numerous opportunities, it also includes many thrilling and unique experiences, including her close call with a jaguar on a carnivore scat detection mission in northern Guatemala. 

“A juvenile jaguar crossed the trail right as my dog Niffler sprinted towards him, looking for his ball! I don’t think Niffler even saw the jaguar, he grabbed his ball and came back to me. I kind of put my hand on his collar and played a game of tug of war until the jaguar disappeared back into the jungle,” she recalled. “And it was just absolutely amazing. It was a show of how far good dog training goes and I’m so proud of him.”

A black and white dog sits up on its hind legs with its tongue slightly sticking out. In front of the dog are several plastic bags full of samples.
K9 Conservationists’ Barley poses with sixty samples of mesocarnivore scat including jaguar, puma, and ocelot in the Maya Biosphere preserve. Credit: Kayla Fratt

From local to global conservation efforts, K9 Conservationists has been making a significant impact in wildlife conservation. With a mission to unite highly trained conservation dog teams with researchers, K9 Conservationists provides mentorship, education, and encourages collaboration among scientists, handlers, and communities. Over the years, they have expanded their reach, from training dogs to sniff out crucial carcasses on wind farms to locating concealed carnivore scat in California’s coastal preserves, and globally to biodiverse locations such as Guatemala.

When Fratt reflects on the journey so far, she says, “I’m really, really proud of where we are.”

Join the pack

To delve deeper into the world of K9 Conservationists, visit their website. For those interested in the conservation dog field, they also offer workshops and live coaching calls on their Patreon.