Whales, Dogs, Poop and Conservation Biology

Katherine Ayres, PhD

Kelley Balcomb-Bartok, photographer NMFS permit 532-1822

When I told my parents that I was going to train dogs to track whale poop from the bow of a boat for my Ph.D. dissertation, they must have laughed for a good twenty minutes straight.  When the initial laughter burst had subsided into giggles, sighs and the wiping of hilarity-induced tears from their eyes, I said, “No really, that’s what I’m doing for my dissertation,” and I did.

How did I happen into this strange and fascinating project?  Truthfully, I just stumbled into it.  After college, I wanted to contribute to the world in an effective way and I really wanted to help endangered species.  That’s when I came across a website for a Conservation Biologist who was doing ground-breaking research.  His name was Dr. Sam Wasser and he was pioneering new methods in wildlife forensics (think CSI, Wildlife).  He was using sophisticated DNA techniques to track illegal elephant poaching.  ‘This is cool stuff!’ I thought and I really wanted to be a part of it.

When I approached Sam as a potential Ph.D. advisor, he told me all about his Center for Conservation Biology, a non-profit nested in the University of Washington, that was not only doing wildlife forensics, but they were also training dogs to track poop (or “scat”) from endangered species.  Why might someone want to collect animal poop?  Well poop actually stores tons of information about the animal that generously “left” the sample for us.  Imagine that the animal is a patient and you are trying to assess the patient’s health without even seeing them.  This is possible with scat!  We use scat DNA to distinguish the species, sex and individual identity of the animal.  We can also use DNA and hard parts like bones, exoskeletons, and seeds to see what the animal was eating.  Additionally, we measure hormones from the scat to see if the animal was stressed, starving or pregnant.  And now the Center for Conservation Biology is developing measures of toxins and proteins that indicate immune system status.

Wasser knew we could gather a wealth of information from the scat samples, but he eventually ran into a problem.  We humans like to think we are pretty special, but if you think about it, our senses are fairly limited.  Our eyesight and hearing is so-so and our olfactory system is far inferior to many other mammals, especially dogs.  Wasser was aware of these limitations that led to human sampling bias, so he had the clever idea of training dogs to track down samples for us.  With help from collaborator Barbara Davenport, he selected dogs from the shelter that had extremely high play drive and excess energy, two qualities that often land dogs right back at the shelter, but make them great candidates for working dogs.  He took these obsessive canines and trained them to find grizzly and black bear scat using positive reinforcement of a play reward.  The dogs learned that if they found the bear scat odor and tracked it to source, they got to have a really fun play session with their handler.  It was a fun game to the dogs and a really effective sampling method for the researchers.  Win, win!  This bear study launched the Center for Conservation Biology’s Conservation Canine program that now trains and sends handler/detection dog teams on projects all over the world!

So I’m sure you’re with me so far, but you might be thinking, ‘Alright, dogs tracking scent on land makes sense, but tracking dogs for whale research?  How on earth does that work?’  Well, we train whale dogs the same way in the beginning. They are trained to associate the smell of the scat sample with playing with their ball.  Then we put the dog on the bow of a boat and conduct transects perpendicular to the wind on the down wind side of the whales, or the area that the whales recently swam through.  The big difference on the boat though is that the dog cannot go up to the sample himself, so we have to pay really close attention to wind patterns and water currents in conjunction with the dog’s behavior.  The dog has specific “changes in behavior” with respect to the “scent cone”, which is a cone of odor emanating from the floating scat on the downwind side.  The dog shows different behaviors when the boat enters the cone, leaves the cone, travels from low to high odor concentration and travels from high to low concentration.  The dog handler has to be very aware of the dog’s behavior and then communicate to the boat driver how to move the boat to where she thinks the sample is located based on the dog’s cues.

The first application of a nautical dog was conducted by the New England Aquarium, in collaboration with the Center for Conservation Biology and Pack Leader.  They used a Rottweiler named Fargo to track right whale scat in the Bay of Fundy.  In the last few years, I have been working with Wasser’s Conservation Canine program to train a black lab named Tucker to track scat from the endangered Southern resident killer whales around the San Juan Islands, WA.  Tucker is a fun loving, sweetheart that loves attention and carrots, but despises water.  I know!  It just goes to show you that not all dogs live up to their breed descriptions, but we actually didn’t want Tucker to jump in the water so we preferred this trait for our whale dog.  Tucker helped me collect about 100 samples in 2009 and allowed us to sample endangered whales from farther away.  Before Tucker, we were following close behind the whales until they pooped.  I preferred Tucker assisted scat collection, because it is less invasive and less biased.

Now finished with my Ph.D. dissertation, I am a pet behavior consultant with Companion Animal Solutions in California.  I have a lot of fond memories working with Tucker and Conservation Canines.  Tucker continues his job as the Center’s whale dog and hopefully will as long as he is able and enjoys it.  He also goes on projects in Canada sampling moose, caribou and wolf.  To follow Tucker and the other Conservation Canines, check out Conservation Canines on Facebook and their website!  Finally, if you happen to go for a trip to the San Juan Islands and you see a black lab on the front of a research boat playing with his ball, cheer loudly.  Tucker is a ham and he loves the attention!



  1. says

    I love this story. I think the most awesome thing in the world is to find out what job dogs think they should be doing, let them do it, and reward them for it.

    My dachshund right now is very upset about a raccoon that has moved in nearby. About a week ago he would go outside, sniff, and start barking. I knew there was something, I recognized this behavior, probably a raccoon since squirrels and cats are more frequent, but don’t get him so excited.

    He found patches where the raccoon had either marked or been for a while and was very interested in them. I always tried to let him explore those areas for as long as he wanted.

    This continued until one night he ran outside, started barking, and I heard the sound of something scampering up a tree. I went over with the flashlight, and sure enough the raccoon was looking back at me.

    I’m proud that I have not once been upset with Kody for barking. I knew he was onto something and was just doing his job. It feels good to be able to understand when dogs are doing what they think is right and be able to accept that and if not overtly praise them, at least not punish them when they do what they were born to do.

  2. says

    Matt thank you for the comment! Sounds like Kody would be a good candidate for our Nose Work class :)

    I agree, a lot of times our dogs are trying to work for us whether we know it or not. We encourage owners to do “thank you training” for dogs that alert bark. It seems counter-intuitive, but once you go through the training, when the dog alert barks you say “thank you” and they come to you for a treat. It let’s them know that you appreciate their “work” and it can actually stop the continued barking, which is usually what owners want to stop, opposed to the initial alert which most people like. Also, if you check out the “problem”, this will usually satisfy your alert barker, but sometimes you don’t always want to get up to check it out, hence “thank you training”.

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