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The Dog ‘Nose’ Its Poo

January 11, 2011

It will come as no surprise to dog owners that their four-legged friends have a flair for sniffing out the excrement of other animals. Now, biologists at the University of California, Berkeley, have trained dogs to detect the scat of other critters for the greater good ““ to conduct more accurate surveys of wildlife.

“Wildlife detection dogs have been mostly used in airports to detect contraband, including endangered species and wildlife products, but in recent years, interest has grown in using the dogs to help scientists track biological targets in natural settings,” said Sarah Reed, lead author of a paper documenting the dogs’ performance that is published in the January issue of the Journal of Wildlife Management. “Working with dogs can greatly improve our ability to detect rare species and help us to understand how these species are responding to large-scale environmental changes, such as habitat loss and fragmentation.”

Reed conducted the research while she was a graduate student in UC Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management. She worked with study co-author Aimee Hurt, co-founder and associate director of Working Dogs for Conservation, a Montana-based nonprofit organization that promotes the training and use of dogs as a non-invasive tool for wildlife studies and management.

“Once the ability to extract and analyze DNA improved, researchers recognized the value of scat as a way to non-invasively monitor the location and population size of key species,” said Hurt. “With scat, you can confirm the ID of species and even individuals, as well as analyze hormone levels and diet. It’s a very valuable data deposit. So then it became a matter of finding ways to better track the scat, and dogs naturally came to mind.”

But as with other tools and techniques used in science, the researchers wanted to calibrate the use of dogs in wildlife surveys.

“We wanted to record how far away dogs can detect the scat, and to determine how that is influenced by factors in the environment, such as wind direction, humidity and temperature,” said Reed, who is now a post-doctoral fellow at Colorado State University’s Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology. “One of the things we’re trying to do is help design tests and create metrics that could be used to evaluate dogs as part of a certification program.”

It will come as no surprise to dog owners that their four-legged friends have a flair for sniffing out the excrement of other animals. Now, biologists at the University of California, Berkeley, have trained dogs to detect the scat of other critters for the greater good ““ to conduct more accurate surveys of wildlife.

“Wildlife detection dogs have been mostly used in airports to detect contraband, including endangered species and wildlife products, but in recent years, interest has grown in using the dogs to help scientists track biological targets in natural settings,” said Sarah Reed, lead author of a paper documenting the dogs’ performance that is published in the January issue of the Journal of Wildlife Management. “Working with dogs can greatly improve our ability to detect rare species and help us to understand how these species are responding to large-scale environmental changes, such as habitat loss and fragmentation.”

Reed conducted the research while she was a graduate student in UC Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management. She worked with study co-author Aimee Hurt, co-founder and associate director of Working Dogs for Conservation, a Montana-based nonprofit organization that promotes the training and use of dogs as a non-invasive tool for wildlife studies and management.

“Once the ability to extract and analyze DNA improved, researchers recognized the value of scat as a way to non-invasively monitor the location and population size of key species,” said Hurt. “With scat, you can confirm the ID of species and even individuals, as well as analyze hormone levels and diet. It’s a very valuable data deposit. So then it became a matter of finding ways to better track the scat, and dogs naturally came to mind.”

But as with other tools and techniques used in science, the researchers wanted to calibrate the use of dogs in wildlife surveys.

“We wanted to record how far away dogs can detect the scat, and to determine how that is influenced by factors in the environment, such as wind direction, humidity and temperature,” said Reed, who is now a post-doctoral fellow at Colorado State University’s Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology. “One of the things we’re trying to do is help design tests and create metrics that could be used to evaluate dogs as part of a certification program.”

Image 1 Caption: Maggie, a Labrador retriever mix, was one of two dogs trained by UC Berkeley researchers to detect the scat of certain species as part of a research project to improve wildlife surveys. She is shown here at the Hopland Research and Extension Center, a UC research field station in Mendocino County. Dogs are trained to lie down when they find their target, and their successes are rewarded with play sessions. (Credit: Photo by Nancy Haggerty/Marin Humane Society)

Image 2 Caption: Maggie, a Labrador retriever mix, is seeking out the scat of wildlife at the Hopland Research and Extension Center, a UC research field station in Mendocino County. Sarah Reed, in the foreground, trained Maggie to detect the scat of target species as part of a research project to improve the accuracy of non-invasive wildlife surveys. (Credit: Photo by Nancy Haggerty/Marin Humane Society)

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