Ranger is just four months old, but his owner already has big plans for the golden retriever puppy. His job: to help save the planet.
Ranger is the newest recruit in Rebecca Ross’ fledgling operation Dogs for Conservation, one of just a handful of organizations in the country that take dogs’ keen sense of smell and put it on the hunt for key species that scientists and wildlife managers are looking for.
“There’s no machine yet that has been able to replicate a dog’s nose,” says Ross, who runs the organization out of her farm near Austin, Texas.
Using dogs to sniff out secrets has been around a long time. Canines are used to find hidden bombs, stashes of drugs, lost hikers and accident victims. Some dogs, it seems, can even sniff out cancer cells. That same extraordinary sense of smell can be used for conservation, too, Ross says. Say a researcher wants to find an endangered toad in a forest, or a rare plant in the desert. Maybe a park manager wants to find a pet python released from a Miami home into the Everglades. Dogs can find these things just as easily as they can find an avalanche victim, Ross says, and much easier than a human ever could.
“When you’re looking for something as small as a toad, or a python in the Everglades, your eyes don’t work,” Ross says. “Dogs don’t really see with their eyes, if you know what I mean. They see with their nose.”
Those noses have turned up some pretty amazing things. Dogs looking for grizzly scat have come back with not just one or two samples, but dozens of them, more than research scientists could ever find on their own. After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, dogs sniffed out turtle nests on the beach so biologists could transplant eggs to safer territory. Canines have even been trained to find whale scat at sea, helping biologists identify the animals hiding under the surface.
“Their noses are that incredible,” Ross says, “that despite wind and waves and everything else going on, they are able to find more whale poop than biologists were ever able to find.”
The work is a natural fit for Ross, a wildlife biologist by training, who has spent most of her life with animals. She’s rehabilitated wildlife, from bobcats to zebras, managed a safari park, and worked with her husband’s wildlife relocation operation in his native South Africa.
Hopefully, it’s a natural fit for Ranger, too. Labs and retrievers often make good detection dogs because of their keen sense of smell, Ross says. But it’s not all about the nose. It’s also about personality. The ideal candidate is crazy about toys – so crazy it could drive the average pet owner nuts. Trainers use the toys to get the dogs keen on the scent, she says, and the more intent they are on their toys, the more intent they’ll be on the trail.
“These dogs will work in the heat and sun and rough terrain all day long,” Ross says. “The reason they do it is, they want the toy.”
Ross’ three volunteer trainers know the drill. One’s a retired sheriff deputy. Another trains dogs to find dead bodies. Another trains dogs for the FBI. “We’re taking all the principals from police dogs, army dogs, and all we’re doing is changing the smell,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s bombs, drugs, poop or tortoises. Every animal, every plant has its own signature smell.”
One day it may be Ranger sniffing out those toads, tortoises, pythons and plants: a canine for conservation.