Finding scat samples in the middle of a Costa Rican forest is neither a glamorous nor easy feat, but a Labrador Retriever named Tigre jumped at the opportunity to help.
“Tigre has a habit of jumping and biting at sleeves when he’s excited, which isn’t a problem for us,” explains Kayla Fratt, an outreach coordinator at Montana-based Working Dogs for Conservation, the world’s leading conservation detection dog organization.
Fratt joined Tigre, his handler Stephanny, and a group of scientists to collect scat samples of ocelots and margays in order to build out an animal family tree in Costa Rica. The team spent hours clearing pathways, walking through narrow passages, and watching out for snakes to find what was basically a needle in an unruly jungle. While the team eventually found samples in the detritus, it might’ve taken a lot longer if not for Tigre.
“Every so often, Tigre’s bell would start jingling a bit off-trail and we’d have to work our way through the underbrush to find him panting and wagging, lying down in his alert,” she adds.
Tigre is one of approximately 35 dogs that comprise Working Dogs for Conservation (WD4C), a non-profit that puts canines to work in the wild.
A Lightbulb Idea
Some say a dog is man’s best friend, but a group of four conservation biologists and ecologist believed dogs could also help make the world a greener place.
The idea came to the founders — Megan Parker, Deborah Woollett, Aimee Hurt, and Alice Whitelaw — when they were looking for a more efficient, affordable, and safe practice for wildlife conservation.
“Many traditional survey techniques require expensive helicopters, dangerous tranquilizers, or inefficient camera traps,” Fratt explains. “Dogs fix all of those problems!”
Not only do dogs get the job done, but they can also do it better than humans. In fact, Working Dogs for Conservation claims dogs can find targets up to 40 times faster than other methods.
The foursome started doing conservation detection work with dogs in the late nineties but dedicated all their time to building the non-profit in 1998. Today, Working Dogs for Conservation has traveled to five different continents, doing everything from ecological monitoring to species detection, poaching, and trafficking prevention.
Bred For Brilliance
Dogs might be a great option for wildlife conservation, but no two species are the same. While German Shepherd Dogs and Belgian Malinois are popular in Working Dogs for Conservation, the company gravitates to dogs that are energetic and ready to work.
Fratt says they don’t always select based on breed alone, she says there are definitely breeds that are more likely to display the traits they look for. For example, the organization has never worked with a Pug or Chow Chow.
She adds that medium-sized dogs are great for transporting, while canines with lighter coats will keep them from overheating.
Keep Your Eye on the Ball
So how does Working Dogs for Conservation select its dogs? The company typically finds candidates from personal networks, working dog breeders, shelters, trainers, and other detection professionals. From there, it’s all about training.
“Once a dog is selected for our program, we work on teaching them that finding a target scent earns them the ball,” Fratt explains. “We gradually introduce them to more and more complicated scent puzzles.”
When a dog understands — and even enjoys — the game, it’s easy to train dogs for new projects.
A Second Chance to be a Working Dog
Just because your dog plays an excellent game of fetch doesn’t mean he is destined for a career in wildlife conservation. As Fratt points out, domestic pets and purpose-bred working dogs have two very different lifestyles.
“Most of our dogs get daily hikes, training, and runs to exercise both their body and mind,” Fratt explains. “On the job, they’re focused and intense. If they don’t get enough exercise and practice in, many of them can be quite barky or destructive to live with.”
For many, Working Dogs for Conservation is another chance to be of service. From TSA and border patrol dogs that weren’t quite right for the job to competitive obedience canines out of the running, wildlife conservation can double as the perfect second act.
“There’s a difference between a service dog and a detection dog,” says Fratt. “But, even within the detection disciplines, there are ‘jobs’ that suit certain dogs better than others.”
This non-profit proves that dogs can be the key to a better, greener future. As their website proclaims, “For years scientists have been trying to develop an instrument that is as sensitive as a dog’s nose. We wish them luck. In the meantime, we’ll stick with our pack.”