Meet the Dogs Sniffing Out Whale Poop for Science

Inspired by drug-detection programs, these canines scour the sea for samples that aid in conservation research

Trainer Liz Seely and Tucker head out to search for scat on a research boat. (Jane Cogan)
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Tucker hates the water.

Unlike most Labrador retrievers, this particular 10-year-old male has a pretty healthy phobia of getting wet. He hesitates when confronted with even a tiny rivulet, and he’s definitely not one to fling himself in a pond. Rain doesn’t seem to bother him, but put it under his nose, and he balks.

It’s ironic, then, that Tucker's job is to help track orcas in the straits hugging the eastern and southern shores of Canada’s Vancouver Island. As a Conservation Canine, or C-K9, he is specially trained to sniff out whale poop from the deck of a small research boat, allowing scientists to scoop up fresh samples for study.

Tucker is one of 17 dogs working with the CK-9 program, part of the University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology. The dogs are trained to hunt down fecal leavings from dozens of threatened and endangered species. Some track spotted owls, cougars and caribou, while others can sniff out rare species like the Iberian wolf, giant armadillo and tiger. Experienced dogs can identify scat from more than 13 separate species.

From collected specimens, researchers can obtain information on an animal’s diet, genetic makeup, environmental toxins, stress hormones and other physiological indicators. In turn, many of the dogs are rescue animals that had too much energy for a housebound life. They get new homes, lots of love and a chance to indulge their instincts in the name of wildlife conservation.

“Every now and again I find a dog that looks like he has the right kind of ball drive and seems to explore the world enough with his nose,” says Deana Case, a canine behavior specialist with the Kitsap Humane Society, one of CK-9’s partners. “They’re looking for the dog that’s nosy, the one who finds the ball that’s been under the metal case for a month. You can almost feel them.”

Samuel Wasser, who founded CK-9 in 1997, has been analyzing fecal hormones for wildlife studies since the mid-1980s. Realizing that identifying the pressures on threatened species required a much larger scale, he hit upon the idea of adapting narcotic dog training methods for tracking wildlife.

Wasser worked with Barb Davenport, then the lead drug dog trainer for the Washington Department of Corrections, to develop the program. By virtue of their incredibly sensitive olfactory capabilities, trained dogs can pick up the most miniscule trace of scent from beneath feet of snow or floating at a distance in the water.

No single breed is best suited to the task. Tucker’s kennelmates include Australian cattle dogs, pointers, shepherd mixes—even a Chihuahua mix. But they all have three things in common: they’re high energy, crazy for playing ball and skilled at operating in tandem with their human handlers, who live, work and play with their dogs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

The insatiable drive to retrieve a ball is the key to the C-K9 training method.

“As soon as they see the ball, they don’t care about anything else,” says Heath Smith, coordinator for Conservation Canines and the program’s lead handler and trainer. “They don’t care who has it or where you threw it. All they care about is, if I bring this back, will you throw it again? That’s the dog we look for. Some dogs just want a ball to chew on, but the dogs we look for are the ones who want to play fetch. We use that to communicate.”

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CK-9 dog Max gets rewarded for finding a scat sample as part of the Alberta Oil Sands Wolf & Caribou project. (courtesy Jennifer Hartman)

That singular drive to find their quarry means that using dogs to find scat has the advantage of being unbiased. Invasive data collection methods typically involve trapping an animal to take blood, fur or stool samples, and camera traps and tracking collars can affect the behavior of the subjects.

“When the dog is in the woods or water or wherever, if it smells the sample, it doesn’t care if it’s male or female, hidden or otherwise,” Wasser says. “The dog will work tirelessly to get it because it wants the ball so badly.”

Whales came into the picture in 2001, when Wasser was working on fecal hormone analysis of right whales with New England Aquarium researcher Roz Rolland. He realized that though the human researchers could smell the whale scats, which are bright orange and float on the surface like an oil slick, they just weren’t finding them as often as they could be. It occurred to him that detection dogs could solve that problem.

Davenport trained Rolland to be a conservation detection-dog handler and supplied her with Fargo, a Rottweiler trained to sniff out right whale scats from aboard a research vessel. Rolland’s work was the first to locate marine specimens with canine assistance, and she used the samples to study the health and reproductive status of her right whale targets.

When they were first teaching dogs to find whale scat samples, most of the training took place in a canoe, says Smith. Because they couldn’t get their reward until they reached the target, dogs had to learn new ways of getting there. Some even tried to propel the boat towards the canoe by paddling.

“It takes an incredible amount of collaboration between the handler, boat driver and dog,” Smith says.

The boat offers a way for dogs with some health issues to continue the thrill of the chase, since they don’t need to move around as much to have success. Waylon, a yellow Lab surrendered by his owner, used to tirelessly hoover over a plot until he found every sample there, but he has bad hips. Pepsi, recently retired, was born with an enlarged heart and loses mobility in her legs when she exerts herself.

Tucker was found wandering the streets of north Seattle and was taken into a shelter as a six-month-old pup. He came to CK-9 when he was around a year old. Kids make him nervous—one whiff, and he gets antsy. He's also developed arthritis in one shoulder. But in the field, he’s like Clifford the Big Red Dog.

“He’s the lumbering, goofy, semi-challenged one,” laughs his trainer, Liz Seely.

And though it seems counterintuitive to put a water-hating dog on a boat, it does guarantee Tucker won’t be distracted by the temptation to jump in and play, like some of the other dogs who were trialed to replace the original orca dog. Tucker is fine with the boat, just not with the water, so any time he wanted to look over the side, the handlers knew he’d caught a scent worth investigating. He also doesn’t bark much, leaving the whales in relative peace.

In a gentle breeze, the “scent cone” of fresh whale scat carried downwind is broad and shallow, while in a strong wind the cone is long and narrow. Seely and the boat operator troll slowly along until the dog picks up the trail. When they at last pass through the wafting scent, Tucker will jump onto the bow of the boat and increase the intensity of his scans.

If they’re lucky, they might have 30 minutes to find their target. Sometimes they never do, since orca scat tends to sink quickly. Seely watches Tucker like a hawk, monitoring his every whisker twitch, nostril flare, tail wag and eye movement, and she relays her own silent hand instructions to the boat operator. Great patience is required: in a strong wind, Tucker can pick up the smell of whale poop from as far as a mile away.

When they’re getting close, Tucker leans heavily over the edge of the boat in spite of himself, Seely holding fast with his lead wrapped around her forearm. She scoops the poop out of the water with what Seely calls “a pint glass on a stick,” and then Tucker gets his heart’s burning desire.

“Once we collect the sample, Tucker will do a little dance and chase his ball,” Seely says. 

Gator was the first dog trained on orca scat. (courtesy Heath Smith)
Because Tucker is afraid of water, Liz Seely must carry him aboard their research boat any time they go out. (Jessica Lundin)
Tucker scans the waves from aboard the research boat. (courtesy Liz Seely)
Researcher Jennifer Hartman collecting orca scat on the research boat. (courtesy Jennifer Hartman)
Researcher Jessica Lundin processes an orca scat sample. (Melanie Connor Productions)
Tucker at work. (courtesy Heath Smith)

With the help of Tucker and other CK-9 teams, Wasser’s work on Pacific Northwest orcas has revealed surprising insights into the health and stresses on the resident whales of the Puget Sound region.

The volume of data collection the dogs make possible far outstrips previous methods. Using physical biopsies, for instance, researchers might have been lucky to get ten killer whale tissue samples in a year, and never from the same animal. Dogs enable collection of 150 scat samples each year, allowing for continuous monitoring of individual animals over time and across more than 100 miles of nautical territory.

From those samples, scientists can track individual whales with unprecedented detail. Poop analysis can tell them an animal's genetic identity and gender, as well as what it’s eating, where that prey originates and the levels of various hormones, including whether a whale is pregnant and what stage the pregnancy is at. Scat samples also reveal accumulated contaminant levels, including the presence and levels of several persistent organic pollutants, like DDT and PCBs.

“It’s a huge amount of information,” Wasser says. “We’re talking about animals that spend 90 percent of their time under the water. There are plenty of terrestrial studies that get nowhere near this level of data. That shows the power of the dog to do this kind of work.”

Jessica Lundin, a postdoc who worked with Wasser on a recent orca study, says Tucker helped them find one of the biggest and best samples of scat at the very end of a long day of sampling.

“We’re completely wiped out and motoring back at high speed, and all of a sudden Tucker just let out this whimper,” Lundin says. “A mile later, we came across the biggest scat sample we collected during my entire time on the water. We weren’t actively looking, but Tucker can’t turn his nose off. He’s still on duty.”

Their work is far from over—Lundin recently completed a study on how seasonal availability of Chinook salmon affects toxin levels in the whales’ systems, and Wasser is preparing to release results on how toxin loading in pregnant whales is connected to exceptionally high rates of late-term stillbirths.

“The more we understand this, and the better data we have, we can use that science to build on making the most effective steps moving forward,” Lundin says. “It’s science-based decision-making to really make a difference.”

Wasser says he plans to have the dogs involved in long-term studies on orcas for the rest of his career, but CK-9 will be working with plenty of other marine species in the interim. Delphine Gambaiani, an ecological specialist with the French research center CESTMed, says the group plans to work with the dog teams to increase data collection on Mediterranean loggerhead turtles in the near future.

Biologist Jennifer Hartman partners with CK-9 for her work tracking owls. She adds: “I try to imagine going back to field work without a dog, and I couldn’t do it. It would feel like something is missing. They are like our arms and legs out there.”

Or, more specifically, their noses.

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A trainer and Conservation Canine are seen en route to a lynx and wolf project in northern Washington. (courtesy Jennifer Hartman)
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