An interview with Megan Parker, founder of Working Dogs for Conservation
For millennia dogs have been helpers to humans: they have herded and protected livestock, pulled sleds, hunted game, led the blind, located people after disasters, and sniffed out drugs. Now a new occupation can be added: conservation aide.
Working Dogs for Conservation (WDC) was co-founded by Megan Parker in 2000: the idea, to use dogs’ impeccable scent capabilities for conservation initiatives, appears so logical and useful when Parker talks about it, one is surprised it took environmentalists so long to realize the potential of dogs.
“Our mission is to benefit science and conservation by working with detection dogs. We help save wildlife by supporting conservation efforts to gather information on rare species in an accurate and non-invasive way,” explains Parker. “We train dogs to detect rare samples and they excel at finding trained target odors from endangered species scats to invasive weeds on a huge landscape.”
Megan Parker and her dog Pepin taking a break. Photo courtesy of Working Dogs for Conservation,.
WDC has worked on a wide variety of projects across all regions of the United States. For example, they worked with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) on The Carnivore Connectivity Project where the dogs located scats of wolves, cougars, black and grizlly bears along the Idaho-Montana border.
“Thanks to our team of dogs, we’re proud to report that this work led to the protection of critical wildlife corridors by closing more than 40 miles of roads and preventing a development in a sensitive area,” says Parker.
The group has also helped survey the comeback of moose in the Adirondacks and located threatened plants in Oregon and invasive snails in Hawaii, among many other projects.
Parker says for each of these projects the dog’s nose is key: “canids have evolved as amazing scenting machines. Their noses, and the vast majority of their brains, are built to detect and discriminate small quantities of odor, picking out single scents among the millions of other scents in the environment. Dogs have been selectively bred for thousands of years to serve myriad human purposes, yet most dogs retain the architecture and ability to scent incredibly well.”
WDC has even worked overseas: detecting snakes in the tropics of Guam, locating wild dog and cheetah scat in Kenya, and working with the Andean Cat Project in Argentina to find one of the world’s rarest felines.
“We have really learned from our mistakes while working internationally, where the work periods are typically short and the work intense in unfamiliar territory where we have to find dogs and train handlers, which is different from how we usually work,” Parker says. Despite such challenges, Parker believes that the program could easily be implemented in other countries.
Megan Parker’s dog Pepin, a Belgian malinois, searching a rocks pile for fisher scat. Photo courtesy of Working Dogs for Conservation.
Not just any dog is able to do what WDC requires of them, and the group spends a lot of time and energy training the dog for their demanding tasks. Even finding the right dog can be quite a challenge.
“We comb shelters and rescue facilities for most of our working dogs. We typically select working breeds; the herders, retrievers, shepherds, and other dogs bred for working with people, but most shelter dogs are mixed breeds and we take the dogs that show the behaviors we need. These behaviors are exhibited by an extreme (often called, ‘crazy and obsessive’ by shelter workers) focus on a toy, an ability to ignore distractions (like other dogs, people and food) while focusing on the toy and a willingness to listen to and work with a handler,” Parker says.
The dogs are so well-trained that they have even been taught not to ‘touch’ samples, such as scat, because much of what they look for undergoes DNA testing and any direct contact with the dog could contaminate it. When an object is found these incredible dogs give “a ‘passive’ alert, meaning that the dog sits or lies near the sample and waits for the handler to reward the dog and process the sample,” Parker explains.
With her innovative organization, Parker has proved that dogs may just conservationists’ best friends.
In a September interview with mongabay.com, Parker spoke about using dogs to smell out scat, particular plants, and even invasive species; she talked about past projects and where WCD is headed next.
Parker will be presenting at the upcoming Wildlife Conservation Network Expo in San Francisco on October 3rd.
INTERVIEW WITH MEGAN PARKER
Mongabay: What is your background?
Megan Parker: I grew up in Montana and had a perfect childhood, running wild around the mountains, lakes and rivers here. We always had dogs and I started training them when I got my first dog at 10 years old. I started training detection dogs around 1996, when I was involved with the reintroduction of wolves to Idaho and Yellowstone. I have worked as a biologist and conservation biologist in the U.S. from Washington to Florida and in Guatemala, Mongolia, Argentina and Africa. I worked on my PhD research in Botswana, studying African wild dogs and their movement, scent marking behavior and chemistry. This helps me understand some of the fascinating behavioral and chemical qualities of animal communication that informs our work with domestic dogs, using their nose to find information. All the while during these years I kept my work with conservation detection dogs going and growing with partners, friends, trainers and eventual co-founders of Working Dogs for Conservation.
Mongabay: Most people don’t think of dogs as conservation activists. How can dogs help save our environment?
Co-Founder and Associate Director of WDC, Aimee Hurt, with dog, Wicket, putting a vest on in the truck, getting ready to go. Photo courtesy of Working Dogs for Conservation.
Megan Parker: Canids have evolved as amazing scenting machines. Their noses, and the vast majority of their brains, are built to detect and discriminate small quantities of odor, picking out single scents among the millions of other scents in the environment. Dogs have been selectively bred for thousands of years to serve myriad human purposes, yet most dogs retain the architecture and ability to scent incredibly well. Because dogs tend to also have this crazy affection for humans, occasionally one finds a dog willing to tell a human where and what they smell something they are trained to find.
Mongabay: What is the goal of Working Dogs for Conservation?
Megan Parker: Our mission is to benefit science and conservation by working with detection dogs. We help save wildlife by supporting conservation efforts to gather information on rare species in an accurate and non-invasive way. We train dogs to detect rare samples and they excel at finding trained target odors from endangered species scats to invasive weeds on a huge landscape. We also improve the lives of special rescue dogs by training them for a working life, giving them a home and offering them the ideal life for high-drive, object oriented dogs. They live amazing lives with their handlers and they love to work.
Mongabay: What led you and your partners to establish Working Dogs for Conservation?
Megan Parker: I have been working with a group of amazing, dedicated biologists who are also dog trainers since the 1990’s, and we formed Working Dogs for Conservation as an NGO in 2000. We felt that we could conduct research and provide support for conservation projects best as a non-profit organization, dedicated to serving conservation and research and the welfare of working dogs. Because we are all biologists, we support conservation projects from study design to mapping, but we also conduct our own research, developing methods that will contribute to conservation projects around the world.
Mongabay: Can you tell us about non-invasive scientific inquiry—how do dogs contribute?
Debbie Smith, a co-founder and Development Director, training her dog, Colt, on boxes to the target scent. In this case it is the threatened lupine plant-which depends on the endangered Fender’s blue butterfly-in the Wilamette Valley of Oregon. Photo courtesy of Working Dogs for Conservation.
Megan Parker: We train our dogs to work hard to find rare samples, often in extremely large and difficult landscapes. The areas we work are often filled with wildlife, livestock and other potential distractions to a dog, but our dogs work with single-minded focus to their trained scent. The dogs do not chase wildlife or domestic animals and can be counted on to stay on task all day long. Our dogs are trained to detect samples, or discriminate among samples, by finding the sample and giving a ‘passive’ alert, meaning that the dog sits or lies near the sample and waits for the handler to reward the dog and process the sample. Many of the samples we collect are used for DNA analyses, so it is important the dogs don’t contaminate the sample by touching it. They simply sit or lie by the sample and wait for their reward until the handler or orienteer (a person who keeps the dog / handler team on the proper compass line or transect across the study site) can collect the data and process the sample properly.
Mongabay: How are your dogs trained to track specific scents, such as moose scat or an invasive weed species?
Megan Parker: We use training techniques that are similar to, and combine aspects of narcotics, search and rescue, bomb and other detection disciplines. We associate the scent of the ‘target’ odor and the dog’s reward, a ball, tug or whatever object the dog is obsessively crazy about. It is simply operant conditioning but it takes an expert to read the dog’s behavior and get the timing right for rewards and corrections. We use positive reward training for this work and the dogs are clearly overjoyed to do this work, have a job and learn these difficult and demanding techniques. People who join us in the field or at demonstrations to observe the dogs can clearly see the focus and effort the dogs put forth, but also the incredible joy they have for this work.
Mongabay: How do you select the dogs to be used for conservation work? Are specific breeds better than others?
In March 2008, Pepin with his tug toy reward, which Parker calls ‘the love of his life’.
Megan Parker: We comb shelters and rescue facilities for most of our working dogs. We typically select working breeds; the herders, retrievers, shepherds, and other dogs bred for working with people, but most shelter dogs are mixed breeds and we take the dogs that show the behaviors we need. These behaviors are exhibited by an extreme (often called, ‘crazy and obsessive’ by shelter workers) focus on a toy, an ability to ignore distractions (like other dogs, people and food) while focusing on the toy and a willingness to listen to and work with a handler. If a dog shows these qualities in a shelter, we take it home and continue working with the dog, increasing the difficulty of tests and training. We also feed the dogs high-quality food and obedience train them. Even if the dog does not choose this line of work and we are asked to return the dog to the shelter or re-home it, the dogs go back happy and trained and in excellent condition.
PROGRAMS WITH WORKING DOGS FOR CONSERVATION
Mongabay: Since 2000 your organization has worked on a large number of projects across the United States, what have been some of the most memorable?
Megan Parker: All our projects are memorable and we learn from every one of them, but our work in the Centennials comes to mind. Running along the Idaho-Montana border, the Centennial Range is one of the few east-west oriented ranges in the area with the potential to provide a linkage zone for carnivores between Greater Yellowstone and central Idaho wilderness areas. We assisted the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) on The Carnivore Connectivity Project, a five-year study which allowed us to get to know the area and our collaborators quite well. The Principal Investigator on this project, Jon Beckmann, became a great friend and field assistant to the dogs. We collected scats from four carnivores, wolves, cougars, black and grizzly bears to understand how these large predators moved between the protected areas of Yellowstone and Idaho.
Aimee Hurt, Associate Director, working her dog, Wicket, in the Centennial Mountains, searching for wolf, grizzly, black bear and cougar scat. This is huge country and the study has helped researchers understand how carnivores move between Yellowstone and protected lands in Idaho. Photo courtesy of Working Dogs for Conservation,.
Our dogs covered over 1500 km, crossing seven land ownerships, collecting 754 scat samples. WCS researchers used these data to map the occurrence of these critical carnivores between protected areas of Yellowstone and Idaho. Thanks to our team of dogs, we’re proud to report that this work led to the protection of critical wildlife corridors by closing more than 40 miles of roads and preventing a development in a sensitive area.
We also worked for WCS on a moose project in the Adirondacks, where moose were overhunted but seem to be coming back. We are looking for genetic information that will help us understand what size the population might be and where moose are moving between neighboring populations.
We have worked on a project looking for endangered plants in Oregon, and for invasive plants in several areas in the West. This is astonishing work, where the dogs are able to detect one tiny plant in an ocean of plants, and sometimes just the soil where damaging weeds are about to sprout.
This year we also worked on Hawaii, helping find an invasive snail that is on the list of the “Worst 100” invasive species, an introduced cannibal snail that kills native gastropods. We are helping agencies figure out how to find and eradicate invasive species.
We worked on kit fox again this year, one of the species we have been working on for over a decade. This year, we looked at an area where a proposed wind farm is slated for development to look at before and after effects of energy development. We also worked on an endangered ground squirrel, Pacific fisher, various large carnivores, soils and plants.
Mongabay: What are some up-coming projects?
Megan Parker: This fall, we will begin working in the “Great Burn”, a 270,000-acre road-less area, straddling the border of Idaho and Montana, in the heart of the “Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative”. This area is one of the most remote, ecologically pristine, intact areas in the Northern Rockies. The size, ecological integrity, and location of the Great Burn make it ideal habitat and a potentially vital wildlife corridor for a variety of species of conservation concern. The National Forest Land and Resource Management Plans, which will help guide the use of this area for the next 15-20 years, are currently being formulated and Travel Plans for the area will be completed after the Forest Plans. Off-road travel and recreational use of the area has increased over the last few decades and these trends have major implications for the conservation and environmental protection of this unique and important area. Still, little is known about how wildlife uses the Great Burn. WDC, along with NGO and agency collaborators, notably the Great Burn Study Group (GBSG), will survey the area to better understand wildlife presence and use of this area, targeting Grizzly bears, wolves, lynx, wolverine and fisher. All of these species are of state and national conservation concern that are threatened by habitat loss, degradation and/or fragmentation.
Working Dogs for Conservation also helps trains dogs that are used later by other organizations. Says Parker: “‘New Jersey 053’ is a bear I trained named ‘Bear’ who works for the New Jersey Dept. Game and Fish. He is trained to find pine snake (shed skin, eggs, any tiny thing) which is he looking for here. The pine snake is an endangered reptile in the Pine Barrens and is pivotal for determining development activities there. He is also trained on bobcat scat and bog turtles. He is being handled here by NJ biologists who we train, Gretchen Fowles and Dave Golden.” Photo courtesy of Working Dogs for Conservation.
We will also be working for a second season in Washington’s Northern Cascade Mountains, a vital landscape, providing unparalleled recreational benefits and invaluable wildlife habitat. The Cascades Carnivore Connectivity Project represents a unique, multi-partner effort to better understand and ultimately reduce the effects of major highways on carnivore populations in the northern Cascades and beyond. This area presents a rare opportunity in the conterminous United States to host a full complement of native carnivores, including endangered and threatened species such as grizzly bears, wolves, wolverines, and lynx. Landscape-scale connectivity, which allows animals to move within the ecosystem and provides for genetic exchange with outside populations, is a crucial component of carnivore recovery and conservation. Research has shown, however, that transportation systems characterized by high road densities and substantial vehicle traffic result in “fracture zones” that are detrimental to wildlife because they increase mortality and inhibit natural patterns of animal movement. WDC dog handler teams will be assisting in efforts to understand the critical species present in this area and their movement patterns, surveying pre-defined transects as well as along forest roads and trails through suitable habitat.
Mongabay: Working Dogs for Conservation has also gone abroad, working in Guam, Kenya, Russia, Argentina. What has been some highlights of these travels?
Megan Parker: These trips abroad have been incredible and helped us learn and grow as an organization focused on supporting conservation efforts. We have really learned from our mistakes while working internationally, where the work periods are typically short and the work intense in unfamiliar territory where we have to find dogs and train handlers, which is different from how we usually work, where we can really take our time choosing dogs and handlers and setting up and trouble shooting field work.
For our work on Guam, we found shelter dogs in Montana and trained the dogs and handlers in Montana for later deployment to Guam. You can imagine some of the limitations of training dogs in wintery Montana to detect tropical, nocturnal, arboreal snakes. We were not allowed to train with live animals, so we trained the dogs on small squares of guaze material (swabs) that had been run down the body of snakes in captivity. These were shipped to us and we hid these for the dogs to find. We figured that if they could find faint traces of scent on guaze, they would translate that to tracking snakes – and they were great, transitioning to deep, dark, dense jungle.
In Kenya, we were asked to find dogs in Nairobi, where the animal shelter is wonderful, but most of the dogs came off the street and were not raised in a culture where people are necessarily loving towards dogs. Most of the strays feared people and there is no way to overcome a fear of people to work with a handler. We select extremely high-drive, toy or food-obsessed dogs and we never found this high level of crazy food or toy drive, but we did find two very nice dogs that were polite enough to work with us, although they were not at the level I would choose for this demanding work. We trained them on African wild dog and cheetah scat, while camping out on a gorgeous ranch in northern Kenya. They proved the method and allowed us to think through how to work in this predator and elephant rich environment.
Alice Whitelaw with her dog Tsavo working on the threatened lupine plant project in Oregon. Photo courtesy of Working Dogs for Conservation.
In Argentina, we had the great pleasure of working with the Andean Cat Project, and working with local trainers and handlers, who selected dogs from Argentina. We trained the dogs and took the best candidate to the Andes where we spent a week working through field methods for using dogs to detect the rarest of felids. An extra challenge is the fact that Andean cats latrine (share defecation sites) with a far more common cat, the Pampas cat. People are working very hard across the Andean region to learn about this rare species and dogs may be a very effective way of gathering information.
Mongabay: Has there been any discussion of expanding the program (or developing sister programs) overseas?
Megan Parker: Yes, we hope to expand our role internationally and would like to work with more organizations to support their efforts to increase sample sizes. We can do this in various ways and we are exploring and developing several avenues from offering laboratory services here in Montana, to helping groups build their own programs in their countries, to working with other handlers and trainers to support their field efforts. We have developed some great relationships with handlers and other groups, and may try to build formal training relationships with in-country facilities to help keep costs down while keeping quality training and oversight high. We maintain remote training support with a handful of projects and would like to be better able to serve these small projects in person. We are certainly looking for ways to share our expertise and this method which is exceedingly effective at gathering information for conservation.
Megan Parker will be presenting at the upcoming Wildlife Conservation Network Expo in San Francisco on October 3rd
(09/05/2008)Bushwhacking our way through nearly impenetrable bogs and blow down in the central woods of the Adirondacks in northern New York, I am wondering…how can a MOOSE move through this stuff?
(01/05/2006) In a society where lung and breast cancers are leading causes of cancer death worldwide, early detection of the disease is highly desirable. In a new scientific study, researchers present astonishing new evidence that man’s best friend, the dog, may have the capacity to contribute to the process of early cancer detection. In this study which will be published in the March 2006 issue of the journal Integrative Cancer Therapies published by SAGE Publications, researchers reveal scientific evidence that a dog’s extraordinary scenting ability can distinguish people with both early and late stage lung and breast cancers from healthy controls. The research, which was performed in California, was recently documented by the BBC in the United Kingdom, and is soon to be aired in the United States.