These Dogs Help Save the Planet

These Dogs Help Save the Planet

By Megan Parker for Exceptional Canine

These Dogs Help Save the Planet

Dogs and their owners have been hunting for food, finding missing persons and sniffing out contraband for eons. Now, dogs and people are working together to locate hard-to-find wildlife species and plants.

Working Dogs for Conservation (WDC) was created in 2000 to collect information-rich wildlife and plant samples using specially trained detection dogs paired with biologist handlers. The dog’s job: Sniff out scat (feces), vegetation and live animals. The human’s role: Study the samples to learn more about everything from species range to habitat use. In 2011, for example, WDC teams identified invasive weeds in Montana, Colorado and Iowa, enabling the eradication of the pesky flora. Our dogs have also ventured north of the Arctic Circle to assist in a bear conservation project with the National Park Service.

A Second Chance for Shelter Dogs

It can be a daunting task to locate signs of elusive wildlife and rare vegetation -- especially in rugged terrain -- so we need really special dogs. We look for extremely high-energy canines that love to play, can stay focused on their job and love working for hours in a challenging environment. Most of our dogs come from shelters or rescue organizations where owners felt the dogs were too intense or play-driven. It’s ironic because the very characteristics that make them excellent WDC dogs make them less desirable as house pets.

Many are Shepherds, Labradors and Border Collies. All are at least 1 year old, have balanced drives to hunt and play, easily adapt to new environments, ignore distractions and communicate what they find to their handlers.

Training the Tracker

We train our dogs in ways that are similar to those that are used to train professional drug- or bomb-detection dogs, as well as other detection dogs.

We reward dogs’ drive to play, so when they find the scent they’re trained on (like gorilla dung), they get to play with their toys, which is their favorite thing in the world to do! We have yet to find scents our dogs don’t like or can’t recognize, and they can be trained to alert us to multiple scents. During initial training, the dogs learn to detect very small amounts of scent.

Amazing Finds

Sometimes our dogs find very old scat that a human couldn’t begin to imagine would have any scent left in it after years of rain, snow, wind and sun. I was working my dog this past summer in southwest Montana on a suite of carnivore scat -- grizzly bear, black bear, wolf, wolverine and mountain lion. After a long day of hiking up and down steep mountain sides, I took my dog down to the creek for a drink and a cool soak. He started acting as if he found a scent and alerted me. Sure enough, there was bear scat in the flooded creek. Our dogs constantly amaze us.

About Working Dogs for Conservation

WDC is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization that is committed to developing and furthering the training and use of canine-human teams for monitoring endangered wildlife, defining wildlife corridors and helping eradicate damaging invasive species. Find out more by visiting

Photo Credit: WDC: Co-founder Aimee Hurt and Wicket

Exceptional Canine expert Megan Parker is the co-founder and executive director of She received her doctorate in wildlife biology on the scent-marking behavior and territoriality of African wild dogs in Botswana. Parker’s dog training experience includes narcotics detection, obedience, and search and rescue.