So because everyone loves dogs, let’s talk about how else they’re being using in conservation efforts! In particular, how they are being used to track elusive and endangered species. Dogs are trained to locate or retrieve species of interest for a variety of conservation studies. This is not a new practice, in fact many consider it old-fashioned or even outdated. But it has proved to be a valuable and inexpensive technique. In fact wildlife tracking dogs have been used for over 100 years and have found many species that are notoriously hard to locate in nature. Dogs can be trained for a wide range of wildlife conservation projects including:
1.) Locating wildlife for population surveys, mark-recapture, etc.
2.) Locating and retrieving individual plants or animals for removal (invasive species, relocation).
3.) Detecting scat, urine, or other indicators of animal presence.
I first heard about this technique being used for turtle tracking, so called “turtle dogs”.
Turtle tracking dogs have become so popular you no longer have to train your own dog, but can hire a company to bring out their already trained dogs! These dogs are being used in survey work, turtle rescue and relocation, and in education and outreach activities. In one study of the federally endangered desert tortoise, dogs located tortoises 90% of the time!
Photo Credit: Mike Redmer, USFWS
There are many companies that specialize in wildlife tracking dogs that can be trained to track various types of plants and animals (here, here). A rewarding aspect of this technique is that many of these conservation dogs are rescued from shelters. What makes for a great tracking dog, high energy and drive, many times makes for a bad family pet and these dogs end up in shelters on the road to euthanasia.
So, what are some considerations to think about when employing dogs for wildlife tracking?
1.) Potential biases:
- To avoid potential observer bias, one dog should be used for the entire course of the study or balance the use of multiple dogs in different portions of the study.
- Balance the search effort throughout the course of the study accounting for both time and search area.
- Account for weather and time of day when surveying, as tracking ability can be impaired with temperature, wind, humidity, etc.
2.) Safety and well-being of the dogs:
- Last week we learned about the dangerous lives of livestock guarding dogs (read here), and tracking dogs have been hired to track some pretty dangerous animals including jaguars and grizzly bears. Luckily they only have to search out urine, scat, or other signs of animals and are never trained to track dangerous animals directly.
- What happens to these dogs when they get old and retire from tracking, do they go the unfortunate way of many racing dogs too old to keep up with the job? Most companies specializing in tracking dogs are nonprofits, work very closely with conservationists, and truly want the best for these dogs. Many dogs working for these companies retire and live out the rest of their lives with their trainers. However, before hiring a company one should always check into how they treat their dogs, and what happens to them when the job is done. Or, better yet, train your own dog to track wildlife! (Can be easier than it sounds if your dog has the drive for it!)
Look at these dogs in action!
All-in-all, I think tracking dogs are wonderful. I have known a few coworkers who just by taking their dogs out on hikes and pointing out turtles have trained their own conservation tracking dog! We trust dogs to sniff out bombs, narcotics, missing people, why not endangered wildlife? Besides, who doesn’t want a field companion like this:
My own trusty field help, Carly! (Obviously not interested in helping me track salamanders!)