Auburn EcoDogs can sniff out anything. What do they find for the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences? Poop.
“Everything poops,” says Dr. Todd Steury, assistant professor of wildlife ecology and one of the co-founders of the project.
According to Dr. Steury, a carnivorous conservation biologist (someone who studies rare species), the project began when he was assigned the Inventory Conservation Planning Project. He and his team were to study every animal in Alabama over a course of three years.
Traditional collection methods, like trapping and hair catchers, are rough on the animals. The cameras they set up took over a million photos, but only six contained pictures of animals. The team needed a method for finding the animals that was timelier and wouldn’t hurt them.
They discovered Dr. Sam Wasser, a conservation biologist from the University of Washington that used detection dogs for research purposes.
At the time, he was one of three organizations that did this, all of which were in the Western U.S. For $2500 a week, plus expenses, they could rent a dog and handler to help them find Alabama animals.
Then the researchers took matters into their own hands. Along with the College of Veterinary Medicine’s Canine Detection Research Institute, they were able to train bomb-sniffing dogs to find “scat,” or animal poop.
Scat samples allow researchers to learn more about a particular species’ habitat, diet, or it can help them find predatory and endangered species. They can also detect invasive root fungus, a tree-killing pest for the forestry industry.
Currently, there are 11 EcoDogs that can sniff out anything from bear scat to invasive pythons. A typical day for them starts with a five mile workout.
“A tired dog doesn’t smell as well as dogs that are in shape,” Dr. Steury says. “Also it helps them deal with the Alabama heat.”
Photo from Auburn University's Flickr page.
When they’re on a trail, the dogs walk the path side-to-side until it finds a “scent cone.” When it picks up on the right smell, the dog sits next to it and is rewarded with a toy. This sounds like a simple task, but the work leading up to finding the right scent can take months to learn.
It all starts with the dog. According to Dr. Steury, a hardworking, naïve dog is preferred to an intelligent, lazy dog. A smart, lazy dog might try anything to get his toy, even if it means sitting next to the wrong scat sample.
Next, the handler is chosen. He or she has to be in tune with the dog and its personality. The dog and handler are trained at the same time, so they learn to communicate with each other.
“There is one dog for every handler,” Dr. Steury says. “It takes a special kind of person to be able to communicate with a dog like that.”
It usually takes about three weeks for the team to learn the first scent. Any scents they layer on top of that can take as little as five minutes. It’s important to be careful when layering scents, as they can be taught by accident. No one knows yet how many scents a dog can learn.
“We are willing to train the dogs for anything of ecological importance,” Dr. Steury says.
Some of their clients have been the Everglades National Park in Florida and the University of Kentucky, but are mostly Auburn locals.
On Saturday, Oct. 8, there will be a demonstration of the EcoDogs at the Forestry Ecology Preserve. For more information, contact the Forestry Ecology Preserve Administrator, Jennifer Lolley, at firstname.lastname@example.org or go to http://ecodogs.auburn.edu.