Dogs are helping many agencies in their conservation efforts. On the Delmarva Peninsula in Delaware, a U.S. Department of Agriculture team of handlers and their detector dogs are working to eradicate nutria, an invasive rodent. ©USDA

Radio collars, GPS tracking devices and remote-controlled drones—when it comes to monitoring wildlife, it’s easy to get caught up in high-tech devices. It turns out, however, that our best tool for endangered species conservation work might be the least technological of all.

Dogs rescued from animal shelters are now finding employment in the conservation field—and the field is better for it. By using dogs to track scat, scents emitted from invasive plants and contraband items in cargo and luggage, our canine friends are saving wildlife, rooting out alien flora and locating poachers—all without damaging the environment or causing stress to wildlife.

Could our best friends and this retro method help cash-strapped conservation organizations all over the world?


Scientists say that a dog’s sense of smell is between 10,000 to 100,000 times more acute than ours. One of the reasons that dogs have such a superior smelling ability is the number of scent receptors that they possess. For every one that a human has, a dog has about 50.

Right on the nose

Shelters all over the country are filled with dogs that are returned for being “problems”; too focused on a single purpose or too high-energy for their owners’ tastes. Luckily, the University of Washington’s (UW) Center for Conservation Biology found a way to harness such canine attributes for the good of the world.

Founded in 1997, the UW’s Conservation Canines (CK9) program trains such activity-loving, single-minded dogs to track certain scents, such as a specific endangered species’ fecal matter. Since dogs have about 50 times more olfactory receptors than we do, they can smell at least 10,000 times better than us. Dogs have been known to detect moose scat buried deep in snow and find grain-of-rice-sized mouse droppings in an area the size of a football field.

That’s a worthwhile skill since animal scat provides tons of biological information, such as how many individuals there are in a population of animals and how they are dispersed over the landscape. Scat sampling is also more statistically random, much less intrusive and far less expense than traditional sampling methods, such as capturing animals for radio-collaring or GPS tagging. In fact, reports The Nature Conservancy, no other wildlife sampling method can gather so much information in so short a time—and do it with so little disturbance to the environment.

In western Canada, in one of the largest CK9 projects, dogs sniffed out caribou scat—and in the process saved the lives of wolves. ©Justin R. Gibson

In a recent project for that organization, Conservation Canines were provided with Jemez Mountains salamander scat for training purposes. On New Mexico’s endangered species list and a candidate for federal protection, the Jemez Mountains salamander is in rapid decline. Although the amphibians had lived in the mountains for thousands of years, a warmer, drier climate in the state is threatening their future survival. Conservation Canines helped scientists estimate where the salamanders live and how many have survived a regional drought so that a forest restoration program could move forward without impacting the salamanders’ habitat.

Saving whales, wolves and almost everything else

Off the coast of San Juan Island, Washington, a black Lab mix named Tucker was used to find and track the scent of orca scat in open ocean water. Collecting the scat is important because it can tell biologists where certain whale pods are spending the winter. DDT, the pesticide that was banned in 1972, is still present in fish found off the coast of Southern California. Thus, pods of whales near San Juan whose feces contain higher trace elements of DDT are most likely overwintering in Southern California waters.

In one of the largest CK9 projects, dogs sniffed out caribou scat—and in the process saved the lives of wolves. When researchers noticed woodland caribou being driven to the brink of extinction in western Canada, many proposed the extermination of the predators.

On Guam, the U.S. Department of Agriculture employs canine inspectors to check cargo for invasive brown tree snakes, which devastate native bird populations. ©USDA

CK9 dogs found the scat of 1,914 caribou, 1,175 moose and 327 wolves. From analysis of that evidence, it was determined that the wolves weren’t eating many caribou—only 10 percent of their diet was caribou meat. Instead, human activity turned out to be the reason for the caribou decline. The area is rich in oil sands, and the closer the herds were to actively used roads and oil-exploration crews, the higher their nutritional and psychological stress levels. Since security is more important to the animals than nutrition, they were bypassing lichen-rich areas that were near active, oil-industry roads.

In New Zealand, specially trained dogs have been put to work locating diminishing populations of native, flightless kiwis and kakapos (a night parrot) and, more recently, little blue penguins. In Nigeria and Cameroon, dogs are searching out the Cross River gorilla, the world’s most rare. The U.S. Forest Service has used CK9 teams to monitor fishers in the forests of the Sierra Nevada in eastern California. And last year, CK9 teams were sent to the Pyrenees and Turkey, to find the locations of badgers, brown bears, lynx, pine martens, wild boars and cats, and wolves.

In the Galapagos, dogs aren’t sniffing out scat but the invasive giant African land snail. In Zambia, they’re discovering contraband and illegal fishing operations.

In the Galapagos, detection dogs sniff out invasive giant African land snails, one of the world’s most destructive snail species. ©Eric Rock

Payment at the end of the day

Canine conservation rangers work cheap: when the job is over, all they seem to want is some affection and a game of fetch with their favorite ball.

Do you think the advantages of using shelter dogs as conservation officers outweigh any disadvantages?

I, for one, hope their ranks grow.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,