K9 Corner: Shelter dogs finding purpose fighting extinctions, smuggling
By HELEN PALMER
Several days ago I read a news article by Dr. Karen Becker (firstname.lastname@example.org), about training dogs to track various endangered wildlife by locating their fecal droppings (also called “scat”). Specifically, the article selected the blunt-nosed leopard lizard — but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The reason I was so intrigued was that one of my favorite training periods in the 1970s involved teaching one of my dogs to track and practicing tracking each day or two. Maybe I had fun, but my dog had other ideas — like, “Boring!” Fortunately, she would do what I asked once a day but after locating the glove or toy or treat one time, she would stand still and stare at me like she was saying, “OK, I did what you wanted, now if you still want to play this game, go find it yourself.”
Obviously it takes special dogs to train to locate specifics like scat, or box turtles or contraband or explosives.
Becker mentions other endangered wildlife these dogs are looking for: San Joaquin kit fox, grey wolf, fisher (a member of the weasel family, though large enough to prey on porcupines), cougar, bobcat, moose (my cousin in Maine tells me that moose in Maine are getting very scarce), river otter, American mink, black-footed ferret and North American right whale. I am intrigued again — how does a dog track a right whale? Unfortunately, I will have to wait for a sequel for that answer.
You have to remember that every creature in an area either feeds on other creatures, therefore keeping that population under control, or is a prey animal for others to eat. Extinction disrupts this balance of nature. Unfortunately, humans are often to blame for the decrease in the population of certain species, either by destroying habitats by building roads or subdivisions, or by hunting for sport. It is up to humans to study the affected species and see what can be done to help it grow. There are many species that are beneficial to humans, like pollinators.
Many of the dogs used in this work are shelter dogs, screened and trained. They are members of the elite Working Dogs for Conservation (WD4C). They can detect specific weeds, moth egg pouches, animals living below the ground and aquatic organisms too small for humans to detect, according to Becker.
The screening at the shelter involves: Intense toy drive and focus; desire to search and work with the handler, (my dog would have failed here); tolerance for working different landscapes and climates; and low prey drive for rabbits, squirrels or the animal being sought.
WD4C dogs can be used in monitoring for wildlife contraband, as well as weapons and ammunition, ivory, rhino horn and bush meat, which helps prevent poaching and wildlife trafficking. They can also be taught to locate invasive species and disease in wildlife.
More power to these special dogs! May the WD4C empty out our shelters and give these lost dogs a job to do that is so helpful to our country.