There’s a lot that can be learned from scat.
Fecal DNA analyses can tell researchers not only what species found poop came from, but the sex of the animal, what it’s been eating — even its reproductive status.
“The value of scat has just come up and up and up,” said Pete Coppolillo, executive director for Working Dogs for Conservation, a nonprofit that trains dogs to sniff out wildlife dung, among other things.
The scent specialists — about 30 dogs — help researchers and conservationists track wildlife, invasive species and items that often end up on the black market, like ivory and rhino horns. Even disease.
“We just did a trial to evaluate whether dogs can tell whether the scat from a particular elk has brucellosis or not,” Coppolillo said. “The short answer is, yes, they can.”
Coppolillo and Zoey, one of the newest additions to the pack, will take the Center for the Arts stage Aug. 9 to showcase the skills Zoey is learning in her training to track mountain lions. The PBS documentary “Shelter Me: Community Matters” will air after the demo, and the partnering organizations — JH Wild, the Cougar Fund, PAWS and Dog is My Co-Pilot — will answer questions in a short Q&A to wrap up the night.
“The highlight obviously is Zoey,” Coppolillo said.
The 1-year-old Belgian Malinois is in training to detect big cat scat, a $10,000 education footed by the Cougar Fund. Once she completes her schooling, which takes four to five months, she’ll be deployed to track cats across the United States, and possibly other countries as well, like Chile and Argentina.
“Cougars are so shy and they’re so secretive; they’re hard to find information on,” Coppolillo said.
The playful and people-loving pup has another important job: serving as an ambassador for the work she and her canine cohorts do in the field. Dogs, Coppolillo said, are a great way to garner attention for lesser-known (and less flashy) causes, like issues with zebra and quagga mussels, both invasive species.
“The outreach potential is just amazing,” he said.
Working Dogs for Conservation has started “doubling down on shelter dogs,” specifically seeking out rescues to add to its team. The nonprofit’s newest program — Rescues to the Rescue — partners with shelters across the country to funnel homeless dogs into new careers.
“There are all these fabulous talented dogs in shelters here in this country,” he said. “A lot of the characteristics that we look for are exactly the characteristics that land these dogs in shelters. They’re high strung, they’re ball obsessed, they’re high energy — that’s what makes them too much dog, and people surrender them.”
About 1 out of every 1,000 dogs considered makes it into the program — scent work isn’t for every dog, Coppolillo said. The organization has taken K-9 officer dropouts and dogs once targeted for military work or personal protection. But the dogs with a strong ball-drive — the ones that often present the worst in shelters — are usually the best in the field.
“What they really want to do is play ball,” he said. “They don’t care about grizzly scat versus wolf scat. They’ll find cigarettes, they’ll find radios, they’ll find weeds. What we teach them is if you want to play ball, you find these scents.”
And once they settle into their new jobs, he said, “they chill out.”