Conservation Canines

Dogs aren’t just man’s best friend, they are helping save other species around the world too!

Conservation Canines is a program run by the University of Washington’s Center for Biological Diversity that trains dogs to help with wildlife research. Using techniques that were developed to train drug detection dogs, Conservation Canines turns shelter dogs into scat-sniffing superheroes.

photo_credit_jane_cogan
Tucker heads out to find some whale scat!

Scat samples can be used to answer a wide variety of wildlife research questions. What is this animal eating? Is it pregnant? What toxins have they been exposed to, and at what levels? Where are they finding food? Answering these questions provides wildlife researchers and managers with the information they need to understand how animals are doing and what they need to thrive.

Traditional methods for collecting scat are more invasive or are biased toward certain behaviors, which means that the scat collected may not be a good representation of what is normal for that animal. Using dogs, scat samples can be collected after they are deposited normally, which helps scientists be more confident about their answers to those important questions. Dogs are also able to cover a large area in a short period of time, and some experienced dogs can identify scat from up to 13 different species.

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Photo credit: Conservation Canines

 

For some species, finding scat is just plain difficult. For researchers studying the Southern Resident Killer Whales, one conservation canine named Tucker has made it easier for them to collect samples from these whales without disturbing them. Tucker waits patiently on the bow of the research boat and directs the team to each orangey-brown slick on the surface for collection. Using these samples, researchers have been able to analyze hormone levels in the whales to determine stress and look at prey remains to identify their most important food sources. This information is crucial to help researchers, managers, and lawmakers understand this endangered population and identify what steps to take toward their preservation.

Another group of dogs is helping save wildlife in a very different way. Karelian bear dogs are trained by Wild River Bear Institute to scare bears away from developed areas without harming the bear. They describe their approach as teaching “both bears and humans correct behaviors to reduce conflicts”. By chasing the bears away with dogs, the bears develop a healthy fear of human civilization. By using dogs to chase the bears away, they teach people that there are more humane options available than euthanization or forced relocation. Have a look here to see these incredible dogs in action!

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Photo credit: Jennifer Hartman

As climate change continues to alter the natural landscape around us, animals are forced to adjust their range to follow their food sources and other important resources. These changes can put wildlife into contact with people in places where they haven’t traditionally been. For polar bears, melting sea ice in the arctic is forcing them to spend more time on the mainland searching for food in new places, and this is bringing them into villages throughout the arctic in Russia, Alaska and Canada. Dogs might be the only option to keep both bears and people safe. In places where oil and gas extraction are expanding in the Arctic, dogs also help by finding polar bear hibernation dens so that appropriate protection zones can be set up around them. The Karelian bear dogs have even been used to find poached animals and enabled officials to prosecute the offender.

While it can often seem like conservationists are tasked with protecting our natural world single-handedly, these canine companions have proven that preserving our natural spaces will always be a collaborative effort.

Liz Allyn

Conservation Made Simple

References

National Geographic

Wind River Bear Institute

Conservation Canines

Center for Conservation Biology

Smithsonian Magazine

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