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New Wildlife Survey Tool: Pooches Sniff Poop For Good Not Evil

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Dog owners may find it disconcerting that their four-legged friends have a flair for sniffing out the excrement of other animals. But now, biologists 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 2011 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, now a postdoctoral fellow at Colorado State University, conducted the research while she was a graduate student in CNR’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management. She worked with study coauthor Aimee Hurt, cofounder and associate director of Working Dogs for Conservation, a Montana-based nonprofit organization that promotes the training and use of dogs as a noninvasive 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 noninvasively monitor the location and population size of key species,” said Hurt. “With scat, you can confirm the ID of species and even individual animals, 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.”

The researchers searched animal shelters and rescue organizations in Northern California for candidate dogs to train. “The dogs that do really well in this type of work are high energy, which also makes them hard to live with as pets,” said Hurt. “Those are often the types of dogs that end up in shelters. They are not kennel dogs. They need a job.”

-adapted from an article by Sarah Yang

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