Dogs May Be Our Best Conservation Aids

Candice Gaukel Andrews January 26, 2016 25
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 on a program to eradicate nutria, an invasive rodent. ©USDA

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?

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 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

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.

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

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

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.

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 the Galapagos, detection dogs sniff out the invasive giant African land snail, one of the most destructive snail species in the world, especially in tropical and subtropical environments. ©Eric Rock

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

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.

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,



  1. Jason Hain April 16, 2016 at 2:37 pm - Reply

    This is good, gets me thinking about introducing – training a rescue dog to trail wildcat scat.

  2. Pats Pats April 16, 2016 at 1:57 pm - Reply

    This is way to go. Giving abandoned dogs a proper life whilst supporting another aspect of animal welfare.

  3. Glenys-Julie Harris April 16, 2016 at 1:56 pm - Reply

    We have dogs that can find quolls to assist researchers to learn more about them to help with their recovery and protection OR can find feral cats for removal in order to protect our Australian native animals.

  4. Faren Wolter, CWB April 16, 2016 at 1:55 pm - Reply

    We having been using detection canines in wildlife conservation & research since late 1800s. I have trained detection dogs for a few years and when trained correctly there isn’t anything they can’t find!

  5. Vladimir Nemcek April 16, 2016 at 1:54 pm - Reply

    Great use of dogs in wildlife protection and research. Thank you for article!

  6. Tanna Riggs April 16, 2016 at 1:54 pm - Reply

    That’s a wonderful way to use rescue dogs. Dogs are incredible in every aspect , and don’t ask for much but love.

  7. Jo-Ann Jennier April 16, 2016 at 1:53 pm - Reply

    These dogs, and their trainers, are incredible! Their use for finding salamanders is especially intriguing, as the salamanders are often underground and not obvious to those searching for them!

  8. Roy E Saffel April 16, 2016 at 1:52 pm - Reply

    This makes a lot of sense a win -win
    We rescue the dogs from the pounds and make a giant step to saving our planet

  9. Santosh Kumar April 16, 2016 at 1:52 pm - Reply

    Trained dog squads can be used for scat scanning in wildlife landscapes. This is in fact great news that field biologists are making efforts to use low tech dogs to trace scat dropping locations and make their work easier. Great going! This can be very useful in developing prompt strategies to mitigate human wildlife conflicts in urban landscapes where wild animals,like bears, wolves and other carnivores move and create panic among urban residents. Quick scat scanning with conservation aids from dogs will not only help to understand the frequency of the movement of wild animals in a particular area, it will also help local people to know the types of wild animals that occupy a ranging space in their courtyard and take necessary steps in advance to escape from any type of interfacing with wild animals.

  10. Gail Carroll March 18, 2016 at 10:46 pm - Reply

    A great article and positive way to save dogs from shelters often resulting in euthanasia.

  11. Judy Hoy February 3, 2016 at 11:19 am - Reply

    I wonder why it took so long to do this. I always learned so much about what is happening wildlife wise on our land by following my Corgi around. She found scat, dead carcasses or the places where accipiters had eaten their prey, etc.
    This program saves dogs and wildlife. It is great.

  12. Alex Krstic February 3, 2016 at 11:17 am - Reply

    Detector dogs are an excellent conservation aid. Our conservation and predator dogs are efficient and highly effective.

  13. Candice Gaukel Andrews February 2, 2016 at 3:09 pm - Reply


    Thanks for providing another great set of links from Australia! —C.G.A.

  14. Shilpa February 1, 2016 at 9:37 pm - Reply

    A fascinating overview of the many ways in which dogs are being used to help conserve wildlife populations and threatened species. Thank you!

    You can add a couple more example from Australia. See here:

    And this:

    And this, although this is different to using shelter dogs, etc it is a way of using native canine predators to help keep feral populations in check:

    Cheers from Sydney, Australia 🙂

  15. Christopher Koslin January 31, 2016 at 12:27 pm - Reply

    Great article!!

  16. Candice Gaukel Andrews January 31, 2016 at 12:22 pm - Reply

    Thank you for the additional links, Romaine. —C.G.A.

  17. Romane Cristescu January 31, 2016 at 12:19 pm - Reply

    Couldn’t agree more! 🙂 This is what we are trying to achieve with detection dogs in Australia:


    WWF, koalas and detection dogs working together: :-

  18. Grace Yoxon January 31, 2016 at 5:47 am - Reply

    Excellent article. Many years ago we visited Russia and Dr Pazetnov who used to rear orphaned bears. He used ex-KGB dogs to track the bears when released as they could recognise the scat of individual bears. We use our pet border collie to track otters in the wild. She too will dig down into snow to find otter scat. It is an environmentally friendly and animal friendly method and the dogs love it.

  19. Alex Rausch January 29, 2016 at 3:36 pm - Reply

    This is wonderful! I love dogs and I love the environment; it’s a total win/win!

  20. Candice Gaukel Andrews January 28, 2016 at 10:48 am - Reply

    Hi, Kerry. Thanks for the comment. The Pennsylvania Game Commission has week-by-week videos on the training of canine conservation officers. You might be interested in them; the first is here: —C.G.A.

  21. Kerry Payton January 28, 2016 at 10:47 am - Reply

    Very interesting! Good idea! Stops dogs being needlessly being put down and helps with conservation efforts. A very happy ending that seemingly works very well, judging by the Caribou case. I wonder how the dogs get selected and how long the training of the dogs take?

  22. Travis January 27, 2016 at 10:28 am - Reply

    This is an inspiration today!

  23. Bushra Allah Rakh January 27, 2016 at 6:25 am - Reply

    Good idea.

  24. Candice Gaukel Andrews January 27, 2016 at 6:22 am - Reply


    Thank you for taking the time to write such a kind comment. I appreciate it! —C.G.A.

  25. Melissa Kelly January 26, 2016 at 5:40 pm - Reply

    Excellent article; as are all of your articles I’ve read. Thanks!

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