The nose knows – the science is in on wildlife sniffer dogs
Scientists have for the first time tested wildlife detection dogs to see how they perform in different habitats, and the results are very impressive.
Wildlife sniffer dogs are trained to find the scats (poo) or scent of hard to find wildlife species. As threatened species continue to drop in numbers, they become much harder to find and conserve. Detection dogs are a potential solution to that problem.
Despite their amazing skills the use of sniffer dogs by wildlife management agencies is still limited, partly because there are many factors that might impact the dogs’ performance. One well-toted theory states that dogs might not perform well in thicker vegetation, compared to open areas. Author of the new study, Dr Kellie Leigh from Science for Wildlife, explains “Scent is heavier than air so it pools and gets caught up in vegetation and depressions, rather than dispersing from its source. That means the dogs might have more trouble finding the scent in some areas.”
Working together with professional dog trainer Martin Dominick from K9-Centre Australia, Dr Leigh ran an experiment with Badger, an Australian Shepherd trained to find the scat of spotted-tailed quolls. The quolls are the largest marsupial predator on mainland Australia and are becoming very hard to find in some areas. Over 120 searches, Badger scoured for quoll scats in three different habitats, from open grassland to thick vegetation, under both winter and summer conditions.
Surprisingly, Badger had equal success finding the scats under all conditions, detecting the scat from up to forty meters away. Humans would have no chance of finding a scat from that distance, in fact we could be right over the top of it and still not see it in the thick bush.
“Our experiment showed that dogs are incredibly effective across a range of conditions, they have few limits to their performance” says Leigh. “We discovered some other interesting things too. Overall Badger had a very high success rate at finding the scats, compared to studies in other countries. For example others found that just 5mm of rain was enough to reduce the chances of a dog finding a scat, whereas Badger found scats that had been out under 200mm of rain. We think that is linked to the range of different scats we used during training, and based on this our paper has some recommendations about how to make dogs even more effective.”
The study was also the first to evaluate sniffer dogs working under Australian conditions. The research results have been published in the prestigious international journal, Methods in Ecology and Evolution. The authors hope that their results will encourage more land managers to consider using wildlife sniffer dogs for surveys of elusive species.
For media inquiries or further information, contact Dr Kellie Leigh, Executive Director, Science for Wildlife via the form on this website.