In 2008, a black Labrador retriever named Sampson was having a hard time getting adopted from a shelter in Seattle. Fortunately, conservationist Julianne Ubigau heard about the dog described as being “crazy” about playing ball and went to meet him.
“When we took him out to the meet-and-greet area, he knew exactly where he could lock his eyes on a bucket of tennis balls that was in the far corner of another pen,” she recalled. “He started barking and there was no interrupting that. That’s what people saw when they met with him and why he hadn’t been adopted for many months – we knew right away that he would be great for the job. He passed the interview within 30 seconds.”
The job for which she hired Sampson: to be a conservation detection dog for Conservation Canines, a program of the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology that trains rescued dogs to help researchers collect information about threatened and endangered species. The dogs learn to alert on nearly 30 different scents – when they identify their target, their reward is playing fetch with a ball.
Since his rescue, Sampson has helped Ubigau on numerous studies, including searching for the endangered Jemez Mountains salamander in New Mexico, scat (the size of a sesame seed!) of the endangered Pacific pocket mouse in Southern California, and seedlings of an invasive weed species in Washington State.
“Sampson and I specialize in doing projects that involve a lot of problem solving and experimenting,” she said. “He’s now twelve-and-a-half years old and still just as mad about playing ball as he ever was. He is just a really good boy.”
Sampson is one of 21 dogs currently working with Conservation Canines. When not in the field, about 14 dogs handlers and the “K9s” live in a facility on 4,300 acres of the university’s experimental forests. After retirement, the dogs live with former handlers or relatives – they are never returned to shelters.
“We’re like one big pack,” quipped Heath Smith, head instructor and coordinator for Conservation Canines. “We are trained to work with any of the dogs.”
Smith said his team rescues high-energy, toy-motivated dogs who would otherwise not fit into a family home. They’re all different breeds and mixes – he’s quick to note that it’s not necessary to have purebred dogs for scenting work – who typically start with behavior issues but quickly transform while training.
“When the dogs first come here, they’re not very trusting and don’t know what’s going on,” he said. “But literally within a day you start to see they actually have a physical change in their body. They start to develop this confidence and then as you start working in the field, it just grows and grows – before you know it, they don’t even look like the same dog. That’s an incredible part of it.”
These dogs work all over the world protecting wildlife – from big cats in Africa to pangolins in Nepal and wolves in America. They’re even able to detect the scat of killer whales from aboard boats in the Puget Sound. Smith said the dogs are effective at detection – dogs have up to 220 million scent receptors in their noses, as opposed to a measly 5 million for humans – but that handlers need special training to work well with the canines.
“Obviously we can’t speak English to each other, so there’s this other communication that’s going on. When you get in the field and you’re out there day after day covering 20 kilometers together, it’s incredible,” he said. “It’s an amazing communication.”
For example, the dogs are trained to sit when they alert on a scent. But when Smith was in Brazil tracking giant anteaters with a cattle dog named Gator, the dog kept sitting at a sample, then moving a few feet and sitting again – even though Smith told him to “stay.” When he got close enough, Smith realized leaf cutter ants were carrying the sample away, so the dog was trying to keep up with the current location.
Another time, Smith was looking for brown bears in the Pyrenees Mountains with a golden retriever mix named Chester.
“Chester just takes off up the side of this mountain and leaves me in the dust a bit,” he recalled. “I’m breathing hard trying to catch up, and I look up the hill and there’s Chester sitting. So I make my way up to him and soon as I’m there and I catch my breath, he starts walking again. He looks back to see me and make sure that I’m following, and he takes me right to a bear scat.”
Conservation Canine dogs and handlers typically work 6-10 hour days and cover 30-40 kilometers each day – Smith mentioned they give the dogs Hip Action and other Zuke’s treats as snacks to help them stay fueled. But they also do important outreach in schools.
Rescued Lab Sampson often visits classrooms with Ubigau, now the outreach and education co-coordinator for Conservation Canines. She said the dog isn’t a distraction, but actually helps the students focus on her presentation. Often she tells kids about the “cool local wildlife” and conservation efforts in their region, and ways science is fun – like working with a canine partner.
“I’m outside exploring with my dog at my side, having a great time. That’s science, and I just want as many kids to see that side of things – that science is more than book work,” she said. “It can be fun and it can be really interesting and even the dogs, who were in shelters – considered ‘bad dogs’ – even they can be hero scientists.”
For more information about Conservation Canines, visit conservationbiology.uw.edu/conservation-canines. If you know of an adoptable high-energy, toy-motivated dog who could be a conservation detection dog, contact Conservation Canines or visit www.rescues2therescue.org.
Photo of Sampson and Julianne Ubigau by wildlife photographer and dog lover Jaymi Heimbuch.