Let’s face it: All dogs like to smell poop. But this dog smells something else, too – opportunity.
Train, a Chesapeake Bay retriever, sniffs out the scat, or poop, of elusive wild animals like jaguars and oncillas in the name of conservation.
It might sound like an unsavory task, but these scat samples are goldmines for researchers like Train’s owner, conservation biologist Karen DeMatteo.
DeMatteo and a research team in Argentina are trying to pinpoint the habitats of endangered animals, but it’s hard to figure out where they live if you can’t find the animals themselves.
That’s where Train comes in.
“Everybody leaves poop behind in the forest,” DeMatteo says.
Scat can reveal a lot, including the species of an animal and even its sex.
“You can figure out which habitats they like and which habitats they avoid,” DeMatteo says.
Using this data, she and the rest of her team determine which wilderness areas – or corridors – should be prioritized in conservation efforts.
“Everywhere, people are expanding,” DeMatteo says. “We can try to figure out areas of potential overlap between humans and wildlife. We can identify areas that need more work, areas that are great corridors, or areas that are kind of lost to the cause.”
Train was too hyper to make it as a drug dog
Train was originally a rescue dog from the Humane Society. He first entered a program to train drug-detection dogs, but it didn’t work out.
“He failed out of narcotics school because he was too energetic,” DeMatteo says. “He was like a bull in a china closet.”
So she found Train a more suitable career path.
At the time, DeMatteo was looking for dogs to go to the Argentine province of Misiones to work on a research project. Since Train already knew the basics of drug detection, he was a viable candidate.
As it turns out, Train couldn’t care less that he was searching for poop instead of drugs – all he wanted was a ball to play with at the end.
His high energy may have hampered him in narcotics school, but it was a welcome trait in Argentina, where he trekked through vast stretches of wilderness. Last year, Train covered about 1,000 kilometers of Argentinian forest in search of animal droppings.
“Train was just a machine,” DeMatteo says. “We just switched him to use all that energy and search really big areas and find this poop for us.”
But his energy is perfect for searching acres of land
DeMatteo’s team uses dogs to confirm the locations of multi-species corridors – pathways through developed areas that allow wild animals to travel between wilderness habitats.
Before, most similar studies were done with cameras mounted in the wild and equipped with sensors to photograph animals as they passed by. But that method is not the most efficient one because scientists must wait for the animals to cross the camera’s path. Also, the cameras get stolen.
But using Train, along with a border collie named April, has opened doors for the researchers. For example, private landowners who might have been hesitant to allow camera traps on their property are more receptive to the dogs.
“They’re afraid you’re going to take their land or do something funny, and we explain that we just want to look for poop and find out where animals are moving. And they’re like, ‘Oh, cool, can I come?’” DeMatteo says.
Even though Train is nearing 12 years old, he shows no sign of stopping. He’s headed to Nebraska later this year to track mountain lions.
Sometimes the researchers will wake up after trekking long distances and wish for a day off. But they have to keep up with Train, who always wakes up ready to go.
“You’re like, ‘Oh my God, how does he do it?’” DeMatteo says.
She admits the job can be tiring for humans. But working alongside Train makes up for it, she says.
“It just makes life really great to get up and work with a dog every day.”