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The Latest In Scientific Field Equipment? Fido's Nose

Sep 2, 2013
Originally published on September 3, 2013 4:25 pm

Dave Vesely is busy training his dog, Sharpy. She isn't learning to sit or fetch or even herd sheep; Sharpy is learning to find the nests of western pond turtles.

These turtles are sneaky. After laying their eggs in a small hole, they knead together dirt, leaves and their own urine to plug the opening. Once this mud dries, the nest looks like an unremarkable patch of ground.

But that kind of stealth can't protect the turtles from urban development. The western pond turtle is disappearing from the Pacific Northwest as its native habitat is claimed by humans.

Vesely, who works at the Oregon Wildlife Institute, hopes to give the turtles a fighting chance. To keep foxes and raccoons away from their tasty eggs, he can place small metal cages over the nests. But first, he has to find them.

"It's almost impossible," Vesely says. "After just hours and hours of walking across fields looking for nests, it just occurred to me — I've got a dog at home that could probably do this better than I can."

Vesely and his wife own five Groenendaels — big, furry Belgian sheepdogs, jet black from nose to tail. Millions of years of evolution have shaped these dogs into excellent predators, with eyes that pick up movement in dim light, sensitive ears and an incredibly powerful nose.

Vesely is trying to leverage those predatory powers to save a species other canids eat. He's taught Sharpy to associate the smell of turtles with playtime, and now he's running her through training courses, where several turtle-scented objects have been hidden in a grassy field.

Sharpy weaves back and forth, her tail wagging, searching for a scent plume. When she gets that first whiff of turtle, her body whips around, and she follows the smell to its source. Then she plops down and looks to Vesely for her reward — a couple minutes of tug-of-war.

"Nice find for a beginner dog," Vesely tells her.

The Nose Knows

Dogs can detect the smell of diseased bees, ovulating cows, pirated DVDs and cancer. It's all thanks to their top-notch sensory equipment.

"The dog just has hundreds of millions' more receptors lining the pathways of [its] nose than we do," says Alexandra Horowitz, a dog cognition expert at Barnard College.

And the part of the brain that makes sense of all the signals from these receptors — the olfactory bulb — is much larger in dogs than in humans.

"That probably means [dogs have] exponentially more ability to detect odors," Horowitz says.

Her book Inside of a Dog contains a dramatic example of canine olfaction.

"So you have an Olympic-size swimming pool full of water and then you have an identical pool full of water to which you add a teaspoon of sugar," Horowitz says. "They can detect the difference. That smells different to them."

Scent-Centric World

Dogs encounter the world nose-first, so their world is probably very different from our own. We tend to perceive smells in very coarse black and white. There are good odors and bad odors and then a large category of odors we just can't detect.

But for dogs, everything has a scent, and all scent is information. Smells that would make us retch are just interesting to a dog. Overlaid on the visual landscape is the incredibly detailed terrain of smells. Luckily for humans, dogs are one of the few species willing to share their world with humans.

"Bears have a great sense of smell as well, but it would be really difficult to find a bear that wants to tell you consistently what it knows," says Megan Parker, who has made a living finding out what dogs know.

In 2000, Parker helped create Working Dogs for Conservation, a group of biologists and dogs that travel the world, studying rare, endangered and invasive species.

The company was born out of frustration. Parker says many field biologists spend their careers trying to get samples from extremely rare and reclusive species.

"I thought, 'There's got to be a better way,' " she says. "For us, dogs are that better way."

The dogs have found poop containing DNA samples from rare animals up in trees, under the water of fast-flowing creeks and buried by dung beetles.

"Just watching a dog respond to all the things out there you get just the tiniest, tiniest sense of how they experience the world," Parker says.

Do What You Love

Many of the dogs employed at Working Dogs for Conservation aren't bred for detection work; they come from the pound.

"The reason these dogs are in shelters is because they would make really poor pets," Parker says. "They're obsessed by a toy to sometimes an incredible extent — like, they will jump through a plate-glass window to get to a ball outside."

That incredible "toy drive" means they have the focus and motivation to work a full day.

"These are the rare dogs that will be consistently good across long days and a harsh field environment as well as across their careers," Parker says. "They're just going to love this job [for] life."

Scientists and conservationists around the world have embraced detection dogs — so much so that a new organization (the International Conservation Detection Dog Association) has been formed to help certify dogs and handlers, and standardize training and search techniques.

The popularity of the dogs isn't hard to understand. They speed up a tedious process ... and they're the only piece of field equipment that can wag.

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Conservationists around the world are using a new tool in the field. It can navigate difficult terrain and detect the faintest chemical signals. It's also pretty good at a spontaneous game of catch. Turns out dogs are better at sniffing out wildlife than any human or machine. NPR's Adam Cole reports.

ADAM COLE, BYLINE: I met Dave Vesely for the first time in the middle of a soggy field. It was winter and it was Oregon, so of course it was raining.

DAVE VESELY: We've never been out here working in the rain before.

COLE: Vesely's here with a co-worker named Knife.

VESELY: He doesn't bark once we work.

COLE: Knife is an 11 month old Belgian sheepdog, jet black from nose to tail. He's here to learn. Not how to sit or stay, but how to find turtle nests. Western pond turtles are Oregon natives, but they're slowing disappearing as humans chip away at their habitat and foxes and raccoons gobble up their eggs. Vesely and his colleagues at the Oregon Wildlife Institute want to place small cages over the turtle nests to protect them from predators, but there's just one problem.

VESELY: Finding these turtles nests is really, really difficult to do it by eye.

COLE: After laying her eggs in a small hole, the mother turtle needs to gather dirt, brush and her own urine to plug the opening. Once the mud dries, it's almost impossible to see.

VESELY: And after just hours and hours of walking across fields looking for nests, it just occurred to me, you know, I've got a dog at home that could probably do this better than I can.

COLE: A few years ago, Vesely started training his dogs to zero on in a turtle's scent. Here in the grass field, he's hidden several cotton swabs. Some of them carry a few drops of water from a turtle aquarium, others have tap water. Vesely's newest recruit, Knife, has to find the scented swabs. I watch from the sidelines with Vesely's human co-worker, Jennifer Gervais and we have to squint against the rain and rising wind.

JENNIFER GERVAIS: Oh, a tree just fell down. Dog's going: Great big stick, I'm gonna go check it out.

COLE: But Vesely calls Knife back and the dog becomes more businesslike, weaving back and forth. He's searching for a scent bloom.

GERVAIS: If you've seen tobacco smoke drift on a breeze and how it curls and twists, and then imagine tracing that back to its source with your nose.

COLE: After a few minutes of frantic sniffing, Knife plops down on the ground.

GERVAIS: He's got something. Yes. So Dave's gonna play with him for a few minutes and let him know he's been a really good boy.

COLE: Around the world, dogs like Knife are helping conservationists track rare, endangered and invasive species. Their ability seems miraculous to us. Humans certainly couldn't find a few drops of water a turtle has touched in the middle of an Oregon rainstorm. But animal cognition expert Alexandra Horowitz says for dogs this kind of thing is no big deal.

ALEXANDRA HOROWITZ: The dog just has hundreds of millions more receptors lining the pathways of their nose than we do, and that probably means they have exponentially more ability to detect odors.

COLE: Horowitz studies dog cognition at Barnard College and she's collected some mind-boggling examples of canine olfaction.

HOROWITZ: So you have an Olympic size swimming pool full of water and then you have an identical pool full of water to which you add a teaspoon of sugar. They can detect the difference. That smells different to them.

COLE: The part of the dog's brain that processes this smell information is proportionally bigger than the part of our brain that processes sight. Horowitz says we humans tend to think of smells in binary - good or bad.

HOROWITZ: But for dogs, I think they really just are information.

COLE: Biologist Megan Parker has spent her career trying to get at that scent information. She says dogs are much more willing to share than other species with super noses.

MEGAN PARKER: Bears have a great sense of smell, but it would be really difficult to find a bear who wants to tell you consistently what it knows.

COLE: When Parker was a PhD student, she spent a lot of her time looking for African dog poop so she could collect DNA samples. The poop was really hard to find and Parker felt the sense of frustration that conservation biologists know well.

PARKER: The thing that they're looking for is the needle in the haystack or the needle on the moon.

COLE: Parker wondered if she could train her dog to help her find that needle, so she called up some people with experience training detection dogs: the police.

PARKER: And I'd say, hey, I'm a biologist and want to train my dog to find poop, and they would be - they would laugh.

COLE: Eventually, Parker did find someone willing to help her train her dog, and in 2000 she and a few like-minded biologists started Working Dogs for Conservation. Their dogs have teamed up with scientists around the world to find cheetah scat in Zambia, giant tortoises in Nevada, and an invasive snail in Hawaii.

And when Oregon biologist Dave Vesely was looking for scientifically rigorous ways to train his dogs for field work, he turned to the organization for guidance. I stopped by another one of Vesely's training sessions, this time under clear skies.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Good morning.

COLE: But his dog, Knife, wasn't there.

It turns out not every dog has the right personality for detection work.

VESELY: Knife had a lot of really early success and it's like right now he is just in the throes of his adolescent hormones.

COLE: Detection dogs need an incredible amount of drive and focus. Today, Vesely's brought along Sharpie, another young Belgian sheepdog.

VESELY: Sharpie's the B team. You know, I think she's going to work out really well.

COLE: He gives Sharpie a quick reminder whiff, turtle eggs shells he keeps in a jar.

VESELY: Search.

COLE: Sharpie weaves across the field, tail wagging, searching back and forth until suddenly she plops down in the grass.

VESELY: Good girl. Nice one for a beginner dog. Let's go find one more. That's good. Search.


COLE: Adam Cole, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.