Conservation Canines, CK9, isn’t new to the field of wildlife surveys. Yet many wildlife managers don’t know about this fun and effective way to survey for wildlife. CK9 detection dogs locate wildlife scat – species specific and multiple species at a time – all for the reward of a ball toss. Scat detection dogs are able to locate scat from multiple species simultaneously across large, remote areas, and can repeat it! And since they scent from the air rather than scent trails on the ground, the versatility in species targets is huge. The handlers follow the dogs, watching for the tail-tell sign of a successful find – a sit. Then it is up to the handlers to find and confirm the scat’s presence, toss the ball around for the dog, and if part of the survey, collect the feces. Surveys that do collect scat are able to extract a wide variety of genetic, physiological, toxicological and dietary indicators from these samples. From CK9’s website:
These indicators enable us to ascertain species abundance, distribution, resource use, and physiological health all in relation to the environmental pressure(s) the species is encountering.
At ORTWS’s 2014 Annual Meeting, Heath Smith and the CK9 Team gave workshop attendees an overview of the program. The detection dogs themselves are shelter rescues – the intense drive for the ball reward is usually in an animal that has too much energy and obsessive need to play that makes them incompatible with most families, so they end up in shelters. The CK9 team finds them there, adopts them, and starts the relatively short process of training! It usually takes more time to train a handler than it does a dog. When dog and handler are both communicating well, the efficiency and accuracy of detection dog surveys is far superior to more traditional surveys. To demonstrate just how good the dogs are compared to people, the Workshop went outside.
The challenge: Find all 6 scat samples. The samples? Salamander. They are TINY. To help out us humans, the handlers even showed us what they looked like so we would have a search image:
See that tiny, itty bitty black spec on the end of the stir stick? Yeah, that’s it. I think our search image was based on the stir sticks rather than the salamander scat! The snow in the whole area had been trampled so we couldn’t follow footsteps, and the dog couldn’t follow human scent. We all searched as a team, and spread to look amidst the snow, while the CK9 team observed with small smiles… when their teeth weren’t chattering. We had 3 minutes. And believe it or not, we were successful! We found 3 (or was it 4?) of the sticks! GO TEAM PEOPLE! Then it was the dog’s turn.
And we were put to shame. Samson found the first stick so fast – it was amazing. He was let off the leash and BAM. On it. Sit. Ball, ball, ball. The scat was confirmed and OMG BALL! We did cut his survey short because our fingertips were going numb, and the point was illustrated very effectively that the dog’s nose was far better at finding salamander scat in snow than human search images.
The real advantage to CK9 surveys is that they are more sensitive, cover more area in less time than some surveys, which means less disturbance to a potentially sensitive area. For survey protocols that are becoming less and less effective, like northern spotted owl, CK9 offers an excellent supplement to traditional protocol surveys that miss a lot of owls. The USFWS protocol survey requries 2 years of 6 visits, and is largely dependent on the owls vocalizing in response to calls played by the surveyor. With the invasion of barred owls, spotteds aren’t calling as much, and that means our surveys miss them. A recent paper compared Ck9 methods to the 2010 USFWS protocol –
- 3 visits with detection dogs: 87% detection probability
- 6 visits with vocalization surveys: 59% detection probability
The study’s primary author, Samuel Wasser, had this to say:
Vocalization surveys have a lot of value and by no means are we suggesting that the dogs should replace the vocalization surveys. But dogs can add value. The dogs have higher detection probabilities than vocalization surveys under some circumstances, can simultaneously detect spotted and barred owls and don’t need owls to vocalize to be detected. The vocalization surveys have the advantage of being able to cover a much, much bigger area. The two together would be very complementary.
Still, that is an impressive difference, especially on a threatened species. Of course, CK9 surveys don’t stand in for protocol surveys, so adding them on to obtain greater certainty of owl occupancy is a cost increase right now. That cost increase can be worth it, depending on the land manager’s needs. During the workshop, Heath did emphasize that the quality of a CK9 survey is dependent on the handler – so get references and check out the teams if you are thinking of hiring detection dogs for survey work.
Overall the workshop was fun, informative, and showed a more efficient way to survey. We are working on holding another CK9 workshop that focuses on how to incorporate these surveys into your wildlife program – logistics, timing, weather constraints, and just what the data means. Check back on our website to keep updated on upcoming events!