Dressed in a bright orange life jacket and perched on the bow of a boat, Eba is on high alert. It’s not the sight of killer whales swimming in the distance that caused her to adopt a rigid stance, wagging her tail and whimpering with her nose raised high in the air.
It’s the scent of their excrement.
Eba is a scent-detection dog. The canine scientist works alongside her owner, killer whale research biologist Deborah Giles, Ph.D., to sniff out killer whale scat. “If we’re moving into the scent cone, she’ll be right at the front of the boat, leaning over, and as we pass by the heartiest smell, she’ll whip around to the side … and that’s when we know to turn in [to locate the excrement],” explains Giles, the science and research director for the nonprofit Wild Orca.
Giles depends on scat collection to learn important information about killer whales, ranging from nutrition status and stress levels to the presence of parasites, fungus, and pollutants like plastic—data that can help explain the threats facing the endangered species. She calls scat detection and analysis “a noninvasive way to do a health monitoring checkup.”
Killer whales might be gigantic, but their excrement can still be hard to find. Giles notes that it can be the size of a dinner plate or the size of a silver dollar, and likens locating it to looking for a needle in a haystack—when both the needle and the haystack are constantly in motion. Using a dog to sniff out scat increases the odds of successful sample collection.
From Stray to Scientist
Eba wasn’t bred for scent-detection work. The 31-pound mixed-breed dog was found wandering the streets of Sacramento.
The cold, wet, lethargic puppy weighed in at just 3 ½ pounds when she was first abandoned at a Sacramento animal shelter. After a series of misadventures that included an escape from her foster home, the dog ended up back at the shelter where Giles’ sister adopted her and named her Binky. It wasn’t a love connection with the other dog in the home so, in 2017, Giles adopted the mixed-breed pup and changed her name to Eba.
“Things worked out, timing-wise, exactly as they should have,” Giles recalls.
In 2019, Giles learned that the Conservation Canines program at the University of Washington lost funding for its scent-detection dog-trainer teams. Not long after their resident dog and handler moved to another program, funding was renewed and Giles, who works as a research scientist in the UW Center for Conservation Biology, wanted Eba to fill the role.
“I asked [the director of the program] if I could try Eba and he said, ‘Yes, but don’t get your hopes up,’ because often companion animals don’t make good scent-detection dogs,” she says.
Eba started training on land, learning to recognize the scent of killer whale scat and locate it in a series of increasingly challenging hiding spots. She mastered the task in just four days. From there, training progressed to the water.
“Not all dogs make good whale-scat dogs,” says Giles. “Some get seasick or never get their sea legs, but Eba was perfect; she’s been our main dog and I’ve been the main handler ever since.”
In fact, Eba found her first whale-scat sample just one day after the clan of killer whales, known as the Southern Residents, returned to the waters off the coast of Washington.
Science Without the Stress
Working with Eba increases the likelihood that Giles will find scat samples floating in the vast waters, but using a scent-detection dog to sniff out samples also benefits the whales.
The ideal scenario is called a “lateral setup” and involves waiting for a group of whales to pass; the boat follows up to 400 meters (about 1,300 feet) behind in a direction perpendicular to their path, downwind, so the scent cone from their scat comes across the boat at a 90-degree angle.
Giles admits that the conditions are not always perfect for a lateral setup and when needed, the boat captain will adjust the approach with the goal of maintaining maximum distance from the pod to minimize their stress. The process is much less invasive than gathering whale blubber for biopsies.
“We could do the work without dogs, but we’d have to get a lot closer to the whales,” Giles explains. “Using a dog allows us to give the whales extra space, which is less stressful, and still collect samples.”
Once Eba detects scat, she is rewarded with playtime with her favorite toy.
Between May and October, when the Southern Residents are off the coast of Washington, Eba and Giles go out on the boat every day. Eba recognizes the road that leads to Snug Harbor and gets excited about heading to work—but it’s not all work and no play for this stray-turned-scientist.
Thanks to the recognition Eba has earned for her work (the canine conservationist has been featured in The Age of Nature on PBS, the Netflix special Connected, and It’s A Dog’s Life on Disney+), she has developed quite a fan club and is often recognized in her hometown of Friday Harbor, Washington.
“They don’t even say hi to us, it’s just ‘Eba!’ ” Giles says.
One morning, Giles and Eba arrived at the marina and a car skidded to a stop, the window rolled down, and a woman poked her head out and asked, “Is that Eba the whale dog?” Giles heard shrieking from the back seat and three boys piled out of the car to meet the dog.
“She said, ‘We’ve been here since 8 a.m. and we were just hoping to be able to meet Eba,’ ” says Giles. “A lot of working dogs are … not naturally inclined to be ‘people dogs,’ but Eba is both. She’s just a regular dog; she loves to go for walks and be chased, and she’s just a delight to be around.”