Using Dogs in Research

But not for animal testing! Two studies, released this summer in PLoS One, had dogs as part of the research team.

The first study used both canine detection and animal following methods to find scat from killer whales in the inland waters close to British Columbia and Washington state. The highly sensitive canine detection method allows the researchers to follow much further behind whales in their research boats, which means the following is less likely to cause stress to the whales. These killer whales belong to a specific group whose survival could be threatened by boat traffic, inadequate food levels, and levels of toxins in their habitats. In the paper, the group measured hormone levels from fecal samples and suggested that inadequate food levels seem more likely to cause stress to killer whales than boat traffic.

The second study used both canine detection and vocalization survey (where an owl call is simulated and owls in the vicinity respond) methods to find pellets and feces from northern spotted owls, an endangered species for whom conservation efforts are largely based on establishing where they live. Because of the threat from barred owls, northern spotted owls do not always respond to vocal surveys, rendering these surveys less effective in establishing owl residency. By using canine detection methods, though, the researchers found a much higher percentage of the likely owl residents from both species.

In both studies, the handlers taught the dogs to respond to a target scent using positive reinforcement training with a play reward. The dogs in the studies were highly motivated by play, and there are great photos in this press release of Tucker, the whale scat sniffer, working hard on the research boat. These studies are not the first time the canine sense of smell has been put to work to study endangered species less invasively and are hopefully not the end of exciting collaborations between human and dog researchers.

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