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Working with Detection Dogs to Benefit Science & Conservation

April 2009
In Search of Cannibal Snails
WDC Heads to Hawaii to Sniff out a Troublesome Invader

Racing across the forest floor, flying up a tree in hot pursuit of its prey, the exotic, invasive wolf snail (Euglandina rosea) has fast become a serious problem in the Wai'anae Mountains on O'ahu.  OK, they're snails and probably not doing anything that resembles racing in hot pursuit, but this particular species travels at double or triple the rate of the average snail, helping to secure it a seat on the 100 "World's Worst" invaders list.  These voracious predators are linked to the extinction and decline of numerous endemic snail species in every area they have been introduced, prompting conservationists to examine ways to prevent them from further spreading.  Among the current efforts are building exclosures around trees, using electric wire and/or salt trenches, but nothing has been 100% effective yet.

Most recently, exploring the use of detection dogs was added to this list. 

After learning about the use of dogs in eradication efforts of invasives in New Zealand, when the Oahu Army Natural Resources Program and the University of Hawaii began exploring dogs as a possible option for use in their efforts, New Zealand researchers directed them to Working Dogs for Conservation. Given our commitment to researching new applications for our specially trained conservation dogs, we were thrilled for the opportunity to head to Hawaii and not to mention doing so during dark, dreary March (in Montana, anyway) no less.

In order to prepare the dogs for this project, snails were shipped to Montana, arriving just in time for the start of winter (yea for them!).  Our dogs Wicket, Tsavo and Tia quickly began successfully sniffing out these tropical snails in early training trials.  Despite this success, handlers Aimee Hurt and Alice Whitelaw remained prepared to continue training efforts in Hawaii, given its vastly different, moist, hot and humid environment.

The teams spent four weeks in the field working and problem solving with research collaborators
Kapua Kawelo, Vince Costello and Stephanie Joe and the challenges they faced were plenty. The scent of the snail can be difficult for the dogs to pick-up, but add to this a richly scented forest floor environment and the daily work for these handler/dog teams was hardly a day at the beach**. Different targets require different search strategies and this unique target-- a snail on a richly scented forest floor-- required a fine-scale level of searching, something similar to cadaver dog searches where small areas are covered in minute detail. Thus, like all new target species, the snails presented an entirely new suite of challenges for the dog/handler teams to address.

True to form, the dogs worked incredibly hard, overcoming many of these challenges and allowing us to obtain valuable and necessary information to set-up the best design for searching for this species.

WDC and our collaborators will continue research efforts, starting with a shipment of snails to Montana for more training work with the dogs.

Just in time for the snails to enjoy Spring.

We would like to thank our collaborators: Kapua Kawelo, Vince Costello and Stephanie Joe for helping make this research happen, being absolutely fabulous to work with and generating great ideas in the field.

Hawaii crew
The Hawaii crew: Wicket, Stephanie Joe, Aimee Hurt, Alice Whitelaw with Tia, Vince Costello, Kapua Kawelo and Tsavo

**Note the work was hard, but the photo of Tsavo, Wicket and Tia, top right, reveals at least some lounging after work)

A WDC Happy Ending
When failing really isn't and an old name wears off quickly

Fatty Skiing

We were generously awarded a grant through the Planet Dog Foundation (Huge thanks to Planet Dog!) to support our efforts to search shelters throughout Montana for potential dogs, screen them and ultimately bring on another rescue dog to the Working Dogs for Conservation team.  We found a dog recently who we lovingly call Fatty (his medium frame boasted 76 pounds when we got him!).  At 4-5 years old, Fatty has spent the last year and a half in a shelter surrounded by other black dogs, where he failed to stand out. He stood out to us, though, as it was clear his constant companion was a red ball that he dribbled with his feet like a star soccer player. Excelling in initial evaluations, in December he came to reside with trainer and WDC co-founder Aimee Hurt to begin intense training.

Unfortunately (well, for his 'work' potential, anyway), Fatty is so people-focused he often looks up at the trainer instead of keeping his nose low to the ground- where it needs to be in order to find the target. Its rather unclear whether he will overcome this hurdle and end up becoming a conservation dog.

In the meantime, Hurt, her husband and pack of dogs, have all become quite smitten with Fatty and have decided to keep him in their home regardless of his apptitude for and interest in working.

Whether or not Fatty ultimately straps on a WDC vest, he clearly has succeeded.  Not only has he become a new (happy!) member of a dog-loving family, but he has been spending a lot of time enjoying Montana, going back-country skiing-- an activity he absolutely loves and excels at. Through his new-found sport he managed to shed a whopping 14 pounds and now weighs-in at a svelte (really, he looks like a different dog and in just a few months!) 62 pounds.

Fatty is, well, not fatty anymore.

We are committed to providing a positive, fulfilling life for working, retired, and candidate conservation detection dogs here at WDC and we make this possible through our Dog Life program

Thanks again to Planet Dog for helping us find, screen and re-home Fatty. 

To learn more about Planet Dog go to: www.planetdog.com
Photo credit: Pam Voth (www.pamvoth.net)

And Orbee Makes Two...
We managed to find not one, but two potential dogs in shelters around Montana.  In January, we began training this second candidate who is learning  unbelieveably quickly and looks well on his way to becoming a conservation dog!

At a little over a year old, this border collie hails from the shelter in Dillon, Mont., a small ranching community where stray border collies are not at all uncommon. He'd only been at the shelter about 6 weeks, where they recognized that this ball-crazed boy must find a working home and indeed he has.

We're calling him Orbee in honor of a favorite Planet Dog toy that all our dogs love to work for.  Stay tuned to learn more about his progress through training, his first projects and ways this stray from Dillon will make a huge contribution to science and conservation.

A big thanks once again to Planet Dog for helping make this possible.

We would also like to thank the Arthur L. & Elaine V. Johnson Foundation for their tremendous support that allows us the ability to train these new dogs, get them into the field and helps us expand their abilities in new detection directions.  We could not have accomplished so much without your help.
Lounge Dogs
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   Spotlight on Spot

Conservation dog in-training gives her breakthrough performance...


Like a lot of people, some dogs blossom slowly and Tia is an example of one of those.  After battling health issues, which began when she was 6 months old, 2 years and 3 vets later, Tia has finally found relief and unveiled her detection dog prowess. She is especially talented when it comes to doing detail work and, as a result, absolutely excelled in the field searching for snails in Hawaii, where she bloomed and graduated into the newest member of the Working Dogs for Conservation canine family.

Near the end of their field stint, Whitelaw announced Tia's tremendous progress, boasting of her hardwork and stelllar performance on this challenging project.

To quote Alice on the day of Tia's graduation:

"Yes, I'm nearly bursting with pride. So corny, but it's true."

We're all bursting with pride, really, for them both.

Miss Tia is back from her Hawaiian victory and will begin training on rare and/or invasive plants-- the species of which is yet to be determined.

  We Head Inside, to the Lab
 and test our dogs on invasive plants  in collaboration with Dr. Ray Callaway

Given their ability to easily and rapidly spread, invasive plants have become a serious problem, out-competing natives,severly altering the structure of entire ecosystems and are now considered the second-most pressing conservation issue; second only to the bull dozer. In response, WDC biologists have taken the lead in developing the use of conservation dogs to detect invasives as well as rare native prairie plants. In the autumn of 2008, WDC created a new research program aimed at developing a model for the most efficient use of detection dogs in identifying BOTH rare plants and invasive plant species on the landscape.

Our continued efforts in this program recently included spending time  in Dr. Ray Callaway's lab.  A world renowned plant ecologist, Dr. Callaway's research is focused on plant-plant and plant-soil interactions and he does this through the guise of invasive species, studying the changes invasives make to these connections. 

Initially, Dr. Callaway wondered what part of an invasive plant, specifically, is it that dogs are capable of recognizing- the germinate, the leaves, the root, the soil, seeds, etc. So, we set-up several small experiments
, resulting in a significant success rate of dogs to correctly cue on the invasive in all its forms.

The dogs were incredibly successful in the lab and thus laid the foundation for this exciting collaboration.

We are developing collaborative relationships with key partners, like Dr. Callaway, and the work has begun on the development of a multi-faceted, multi-target program on rare and invasive plants in multiple states
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Working Dogs for Conservation
52 Eustis Rd
Three Forks, MT 59752