Pets: Scat-sniffing Dogs Help Study Wildlife

June 26 2013, 1:33 PM

Chevy—a lab-mix—loves a round of tug-o-war like most dogs. Unlike his other four-legged friends, though, he doesn't get to play until he finds cougar poop. That’s right, poop.

This may sound like a children's book theme, but Chevy is a conservation dog, and it’s his job to find animal scat for scientific research. Biologists and land managers are using Fidos to help study wildlife, including threatened and endangered species. Most of these specially-trained dogs sniff out scat, which researchers collect and analyze to help monitor wild populations.

Chevy works with his handler, Greg Davidson, at the Walden-based Find It Detection Dogs. Davidson founded the company last fall after using scat dogs in Oregon, where he worked as a research biologist for the state’s Fish and Wildlife Department. He learned that animal poop is surprisingly useful for scientists studying wild animals. It can tell you where the animal was, what it ate, and if it’s hormone levels are normal. Most importantly, it can identify individual animals. When a cougar defecates, cells from its intestines attach to the outside of the scat, allowing scientists to sequence the cat’s DNA. With this information, biologists can estimate population, map home ranges, and even figure out if different cats are related.

Best of all, scat is cheap. Davidson says that the traditional way to estimate populations of hard-to-count animals like cougars is to catch and radio collar every cat in the area. This process takes a long time, comes with a hefty price-tag, and is stressful on the animals. A dog-handler team can produce similar results in one or two months.

Chevy and Dexter are Davidson’s two working dogs, in addition to two other pooches-in-training. Davidson rescued all four from local shelters. “What I look for is a dog that has a high play drive,” says Davidson. “The kind of dog that is neurotic about playing.” These high-energy dogs often end up in shelters when their owners can’t handle their spunk, but they make perfect scat dogs. “You have to train them to understand that they have to find something before they get the ball,” says Davidson. “Once they make that connection they are off and running.” 

Where's Fido?: So far, Davidson has focused on population estimates. He and the dogs are currently in northeastern Oregon, searching for black-tailed deer scat. This summer they’ll head to Grand Teton National Park to collect cougar scat for a similar population estimate study.

—Image courtesy of Find It Detection Dogs