Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Certification for Tortoise Detector Dogs?

There seems to be no end to what detector dogs can sniff out. A recent article in a scientific journal looks at how well dogs can find desert tortoises, comparing their skills in this regard against a team of scientists, most with between 15 and 40 years of experience. The dogs were each trained for about ten weeks, eight weeks at home with their handlers during which they were familiarized with the target odor (residual tortoise scent) and two weeks at the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center in Las Vegas. See Kenneth E. Nussear, Todd C. Esque, Jill S. Heaton, Mary E. Cablk, Kristina K. Drake, Cindee Valentin, Julie L. Yee, and Philip A. Medica, Are Wildlife Detector Dogs or People Better at Finding Desert Tortoises (Gopherus Agassizii)?, 3(1) Herpetological Conservation and Biology (2008). There were ten canine teams to begin with, but four were eliminated. The final dog crew consisted of one Border Collie, two German Shepherds, one Australian Kelpie and two Labradors. Each canine team covered one square kilometer a day, using either a zigzag pattern or contour pattern (following the contours of the terrain). A biologist followed behind each dog team to confirm the dog’s alerts. Dogs were highly trained and were deployed off leash, guided by their handlers’ voice commands. The dogs did not discover more tortoises than the human teams, but were better at finding tortoises in vegetation. The dog teams were more expensive as the handlers were paid $120/day (apparently the scientists worked cheap). The dogs found the tortoises more quickly (in two-thirds the time required for the human teams), but the researchers found that the dogs might not have been able to work much longer in the desert heat because of fatigue. One statement in the paper struck me as of interest to the dog world: “There is the potential, once a certification procedure is in place that allows detector dogs to be trained and used by tortoise biologists and permitted by state and federal agencies, that further cost savings may be realized.” Much like a search and rescue canine team, the dog has to be able to follow complex commands and go where the handler directs from a distance. The need to survey various types of endangered species could lead to a new type of specialty, and provide an intermittent income for at least a few dog teams.

Additional Note. Dogs have reason to be able to find tortoises.  A recent list of candidates for protection included discussion of the Sonoran desert tortoise (Gopherus Morafkai), noting that most occur in Arizona between 904 and 4,198 feet.  Among the threats to the species listed by the Fish and Wildlife Service were feral dogs, drought, and climate change. 77 Fed. Reg. 69994, 69997 (November 21, 2012)

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