Rescue dogs follow their noses to protect rare species
One of the hardest things about studying and protecting endangered species is simply finding them. That’s where a unique partnership between humans and dogs comes in.
The Rogue Detection Teams are made up of handlers, or what they call human bounders, and trained rescue dogs. Today, bounders Heath Smith and Jennifer Hartman and the Australian cattle dog Pips are heading into Washington’s Colville National Forest to search for one of the most elusive animals in the Northwest: wolves.
They hop a small creek and cross a barbed-wire fence to get to a big meadow.
“You ready? Let’s go find it,” says Smith, and Pips takes off, zigzagging through the dry grass.
Forested mountains ring the horizon, making this feel like a gargantuan task. After all, a wolf pack can range over hundreds of miles, and all that the dog handlers know is that one has been in this general vicinity in the past year. Finding the actual wolves would be nearly impossible for a team of three.
Fortunately, they’re looking for something a little easier to find: the poop the wolves leave behind.
“It’s kind of like finding a needle in a bit of a hay field,” says Smith with a laugh.
It might sound silly, but poop, or what researchers call scat, is a powerful tool for monitoring animals that are hard to find. Sending it off to a lab for genetic analysis can reveal how many animals there are, where they go, what they eat, their health and whether they’re reproducing.
And dogs, of course, are experts at sniffing it out.
“I am constantly surprised by their ability to smell things: PCBs, viruses, areas where an animal’s landed or laid down,” says Smith. “It’s unlimited. If you figure out how to teach them that odor, then they’ll find it.”
Smith started working with detection dogs in 2001 and went on to help build a program at the University of Washington called Conservation Canines, before branching off in 2019 with a handful of human and canine coworkers to create Rogue Detection Teams.
Over the years, the teams have worked for scientists, conservation groups and wildlife agencies around the world to survey for everything from tigers and pangolins to toxic chemicals and diseased grape vines.
The teams can be alone in the field for months, and Smith is quick to point out that success depends on the bounder and dog working together. “[Pips has] done a lot of amazing projects,” Smith says. “He’s worked on fishers and martens and badgers and caterpillars. He’s a stocky little tank that just wants to go, go, go.”
As Pips sets off, Smith turns to his fellow bounder, Hartman, and says, “There should be quite a bit out here.”
“Famous last words,” Hartman replies.
But they don’t have to wait long. After wandering freely, Pips suddenly changes direction.
“Oh, he’s on to something,” Smith says.
Pips sits, and at his feet are several pieces of wolf poop, which basically look like gristly tubes of white fur.
“This is like hairy gold for us,” says Smith, as he kneels to grab the scat with a plastic bag.
If they were working for a scientist or conservation group, they’d send the poop off to a lab to be analyzed. But today they’re collecting it for their scat library to teach their other dogs.
Humans have long relied on dogs’ incredible sense of smell. What sets the Rogues apart is they only work with the rescue dogs that most people reject because they are obsessed with fetch.
“That fetch obsession really is our method of communicating with them,” Smith says. “Since they love this more than anything else, teaching them another odor takes 15 minutes.”
The way it works is simple. Back at their property in Northeastern Washington, Hartman puts empty jars into holes in a long, low wooden table (they also use a circular corral). Then she puts some wolf scat into one of the jars, although the process works with anything from invasive mussels to diseased plants.
“This is a new one,” she says to Filson, the cattle dog mix she’s training, before directing him to sniff his way down the jars.
Then when he gets to the wolf scat, she tosses his ball with a loud, “That a boy!”
Filson brings the ball back and they go through the process several more times, and then Hartman asks Filson to sit before tossing his ball.
“Then, when we’re out in the wild and I have no idea where the poop is, I’ll know he’s at a sample because we’ve followed these steps and stages to get to that point,” says Hartman.
At any point, the Rogue Detection Teams have up to six teams in the field working on different projects. Hartman is training Filson for an upcoming project for a coalition of conservation groups and government agencies to survey for wolves and other rare carnivores in places they’re not known to live in Eastern Oregon.
This is where dogs really stand out. Other techniques for finding and studying elusive animals, things like radio collars and trail cameras, mostly require that you already know where the animals are to start. But the dogs follow their noses to places we might not think to look.
“I think we’re still breaking ground on what dogs can do, learning new things about species that don’t even have baseline data on them,” Hartman says.
Take the Oregon silverspot butterfly. The species is classified as threatened under the Endangered Species Act because it is only found in a half dozen coastal meadows in Oregon and California. And while scientists know that, in caterpillar form, the silverspot feeds on early blue violets, they don’t know exactly what kind of meadow habitats they prefer, because the species is so rare that only one caterpillar had been found in the wild since 1980.
This year, scientists hired the Rogues to bring in Pips. In a matter of four days, he found 13 caterpillars. Knowing where the caterpillars’ thrive will help officials figure out how to manage the landscape to nurture more silverspots, answering questions like, do they do better in a mix of violets and grasses, or areas where the grasses are trimmed or removed?
This is the point where you’re probably thinking: their job sounds mighty romantic. What’s not to love about spending months with cute dogs hiking around Instagrammable places?
But while the Rogues can work with any breed of dog, they’ve learned that it takes a special breed of humans to spend months in the field alone, backpacking through rugged, remote terrain and crawling through leech-infested jungles with fetch-obsessed rescue dogs.
Jake Lammi applied to work with the program five years ago, when it was Conservation Canines at the University of Washington. He was one of 10 candidates invited to a screening workshop of sorts.
“It was basically ‘The Hunger Games,’ is how I like to tell it,” Lammi says “Our first day, Heath took us on a 17-mile hike in the rain and made sure our boots were full of water and stuff like that the whole time. It was weeding out people a little bit at first, because if you can’t do that on your own, you’re not going to do it with a dog. Then people start self-selecting out. And then after a month, they ended up hiring two of us.”
The bounders spend most of the year in the field. It’s the kind of job that becomes your life. But after years of living out of their cars and shared university housing, they realized they needed a permanent home.
So in 2019, after traveling around the country looking for land, Smith bought a property southwest of Colville with several structures, and seven humans and 16 dogs moved in to start Rogue Detection Teams.
“I have…four dogs in my house,” says Suzie Marlow, stopping in the middle to count silently. “Do you like how I pause? Because sometimes I have five. And so dogs and teams will leave and whoever’s here is left to take care of whomever is not on a project.”
Even when they’re not working in the field and just hanging out on the property, tending to the dogs is a full time job, between feeding, walks, and, of course, fetch.
Watching the dogs play, it’s easy to see why the team gravitated to the name Rogue.
“We have a dog that plays with a metal food dish,” says Lammi, playing four frenzied games of fetch at once. “We have a dog that’s like a Chihuahua mix, a rat terrier or something. They’re not all high-drive labs. They come in all shapes and sizes, and they’re all rescue dogs, they’re all from shelters, and that’s something we think is really important.”
The title of “rogue” doesn’t just apply to the dogs. Many of the humans also identify as introverts, nomads and rogues. It makes for a strange pack, a bunch of dog-loving loners living together in the middle of nowhere.
“Living with eight or nine people together in, like a…it’s not quite a commune, you know, but it can feel similar at times: it’s definitely something I never thought I would do,” Lammi says.
Going forward, the Rogues are excited about expanding the ways that dogs can contribute to conservation research, as well as bringing the dogs into classrooms to teach kids about science.
“The dogs and the stories are really good to engage students with conservation,” says Marlow, who heads up their education program. “But the narrative that comes along with these dogs that were homeless, that now traveled to Vietnam and Nepal and kids are like, ‘what?’ It just gives them this desire to dream a little bit bigger or think a little bit differently.”
The dogs also push scientists to think differently, and they certainly help the Rogues to dream a little bigger themselves.
“The communication that happens — that connection — is incredible,” Smith says. “It’s the coolest thing in the world.”
Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting