Using dogs to 'sniff out' wildlife

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Washington, Jan 12 (ANI): Biologists are putting dogs' acute sense of smell to a rather noble use - they have trained dogs to detect the scat of other critters for the greater good - to conduct more accurate surveys of wildlife.

"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," said Sarah Reed at the University of California, Berkeley.

"Once the ability to extract and analyze DNA improved, researchers recognized the value of scat as a way to non-invasively monitor the location and population size of key species," said Aimee Hurt, co-founder and associate director of Working Dogs for Conservation, a Montana-based nonprofit organization.

"With scat, you can confirm the ID of species and even individuals, 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," she added.

The researchers went about looking for the appropriate breeds in kennels and dog shelters.

"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."

Two dogs were selected from more than 600 candidates - one was female Labrador retriever mix trained to sniff out mountain lions and the other was a male pit bull terrier mix, was trained to detect red fox (Vulpes vulpes), gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) and kit fox (Vulpes macrotis) scat.

Although wind did not affect the detection rates, precipitation did. Also, hotter temperatures slightly increased detection rates for the Labrador retriever mix, but they decreased rates for the pit bull terrier mix.

"A dog can't smell as well when it's panting, so dogs that do not tolerate heat will have decreased performance on hot days," said Reed.

"Dogs aren't machines, they can't be turned off and placed on the shelf, and they vary as individuals," said Hurt.

"They come with unique strengths: They are very mobile, they are able to problem-solve, they are able to learn and adapt. But when designing a study, these strengths produce challenges, such as how well the dogs can be expected to work in this environment, and how to know how much area they are effectively searching. This paper is among the few that contribute to addressing these questions."

The study is published in the January issue of the Journal of Wildlife Management. (ANI)

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