For Scientists, a Canine Poop Patrol

Wildlife researchers have discovered a new best friend. In studies from Alberta to Vermont, specially trained dogs are now being used to gather valuable information about bears, foxes and other elusive species from their droppings.

The idea of using dogs to systematically detect wildlife "scat" was initiated five years ago by Samuel Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington. From his work analyzing hormones and DNA in animal feces, Wasser knew that scat could provide a wealth of information about wildlife populations. A single sample can reveal the species, sex, individual identification, fertility status, parasites and pathogens of its former host—not to mention last night’s dinner menu.

But locating feces in the wild is difficult: males tend to deposit droppings conspicuously as a territorial mark, whereas females typically hide their goods to avoid detection. Wasser’s creative solution: scat-sniffing dogs.

A dog’s sense of smell is at least 100 times more receptive than that of a person, thus its ability to sniff out explosives and avalanche victims. Wasser connected with a trainer who dared to dabble in doo-doo.

Barbara Davenport, an experienced, Washington-based detector dog trainer, was drawn to the challenge of developing an effective protocol that could be repeated with many dogs. As she puts it, "There’s always an individual dog that can do some specific job, but it took a whole bunch of collies to replace the original Lassie." Thus far, nearly a dozen scat-sniffing dogs have been used successfully in the field, with several more in training. Davenport recruits from the Humane Society, where high-energy mutts—German shepherds, golden and Labrador retrievers are favored—get a second chance in life.

In Alberta, four dog/handler teams recovered nearly 400 bear scat samples, approximately 150 of which belonged to grizzlies—whose entire regional population is estimated at only 65. In California, a single German shepherd sniffed out 435 droppings in 16 days. In 1999, a scat-sniffing dog found the first grizzly bear poop ever recorded in Washington state!

Scat-sniffing dogs provide an outstanding new opportunity to survey remote areas at minimal cost, without changing the animals" natural behavior. "Some of today’s important conservation questions require us to know how many animals are out there," says Wasser. Scat dogs have recently made their way to Vermont, where, to aid a Ph.D. study, they will soon be scouring the Green Mountains for black bear, bobcat and fisher droppings.

Wasser suggests tropical rainforests as another potential venue. Meanwhile, a small but growing number of "canine scatologists" are making a living doing what they enjoy most—following their nose.