Out of the Shelter and Into the Wild


Recently at a security checkpoint in Zambia, Africa, a Labrador Retriever mix named Ruger helped search vehicles for evidence of wildlife poaching. When a motorbike pulled up, Ruger sniffed the luggage and soon discovered bushmeat—illegal game meat from wildlife. The day before, he’d found hidden ivory and helped bust the poachers.

It was an impressive 24 hours for a partially blind dog who just a few years ago was homeless in Montana. But after being recognized for his search dog potential and training with the nonprofit Working Dogs for Conservation, Ruger blossomed into a top-notch conservation detection dog.

“A lot of the dogs who we’ve rescued would have been euthanized,” says Alice Whitelaw, director of programs and co-founder of Working Dogs for Conservation (WD4C). Whitelaw and three other biologists started Montana- based WD4C in 2000 to rescue dogs from shelters and train them to protect wildlife and wild places around the world.

With projects as diverse as preventing rhino horn trafficking in Vietnam, protecting grizzly bear habitats in North America, and halting the spread of invasive brown tree snakes in Guam, WD4C has taught dogs to detect a variety of scents to aid conservation efforts. Two detection dogs, Tia and Rue, are even in a pilot project to determine whether dogs can identify invasive fish—in this case, brook trout—in flowing rivers.

“The indication is yes, they can do it,” Whitelaw says. “It’s kind of crazy to think about.”

Alice Whitelaw and a Lab named Sara train for ivory detection vehicle searches.

Alice Whitelaw and a Lab named Sara train for ivory detection vehicle searches.


When dogs are trained to associate a specific smell with a reward, they are much more accurate and effective than humans at conservation detection. A lot of this is due to biology: Dogs have around 220 million scent receptors in their noses, compared with about five million for humans. When searching for scat of endangered San Joaquin kit fox in vegetated areas, dogs are able to find seven times as much scat as trained human biologists, Whitelaw says. They can find scat hidden beneath rocks or cow patties— things their human partners wouldn’t spend time flipping over during a search.

“As humans, we are visual creatures. We use our eyes. The dogs are able to find so much more of what we’re looking for than we are able to,” she says. “Watching them problem solve and find things that we never would have found is always a thrill. It’s fun every time.”

And it’s exciting for the dogs, too. WD4C dogs all share a common trait: toy drive. Whitelaw says all of her conservation detection dogs simply go crazy over tennis balls.

“That’s why they’re doing what they do. That’s why they’re finding invasive plants; that’s why they’re finding scats; that’s why they’re finding ivory; that’s why they’re finding snares or invasive mussels. It’s not because they like to smell those things. It’s because they know, as a result of their training, that when they find that target they’re going to get their ball and get to interact with their handler.”

She says that veteran dogs, who already “know the game,” can learn a new scent in just two weeks. Wicket, an energetic Lab mix who spent six months in a shelter because she was deemed “crazy,” is now 11 years old and knows 26 distinct scents, including Hawaiian rosy wolf snail and Chinese moon bear scat. She has worked in seven U.S. states and 14 countries.

“She’s an amazing dog. She’s just fabulous at what she does, and she loves searching,” Whitelaw says. “Aimee, her handler, always says, ‘She’s the right kind of crazy.’ Our dogs would be miserable in a home without the kind of stimulus that they need, and that’s why they end up in shelters.”

WD4C co-founder Aimee Hurt traverses terrain with Wicket.

WD4C co-founder Aimee Hurt traverses terrain with Wicket.



The WD4C dogs live at home with their handlers, the biologists who train them for specific projects. And because there are thousands more high-energy, toy-driven dogs in shelters at risk of euthanasia, WD4C has partnered with the International Fund for Animal Welfare to create Rescues 2 the Rescue. It’s an initiative designed to help rescue organizations across the country locate potential detection dogs and connect them with working dog organizations. The dogs can then be trained for careers in conservation detection or for other jobs like search and rescue or narcotics detection.

“Using the criteria that we have provided for them, shelters will be able to [identify] dogs who look like they have the right kind of drive to do the work. Then training organizations like ours can go there when they’re looking for dogs,” says Whitelaw.

Ultimately, dogs who would have been unadoptable go on to lead fulfilling lives working with their handlers to make the world a better place.

“I can’t think of happier dogs than our dogs,” Whitelaw says. “They love what they do.”


If you have an energetic, toy-obsessed dog in your shelter, he or she might make a terrific detection dog for Working Dogs for Conservation or Rescues 2 the Rescue.

You can easily test the dog’s potential on your own, says Whitelaw. Here’s what to do:

1. Bounce a tennis ball down the hallway of the shelter. “The dog whose eyes dilate and are completely riveted to that tennis ball is the dog who we’re going to stop and check out further. All the other dogs are barking and going crazy, but that dog’s not barking. She’s looking at the ball.”

2. Take the dog into a secure area and throw the ball. “Does the dog chase the ball actively or does he go off and start sniffing other stuff? We want the dog to go get that ball. It doesn’t matter if he wants to give it up or bring it back 3to us—it’s how intent he is on that toy.”

3. Gently restrain the dog, throw the ball, and release him when the ball stops moving. “Does he go get the ball? If yes, does he get the ball with the same enthusiasm that he did when the ball was in motion? If so, great! He’s passing this part of the test.”

4. Cover the dog’s eyes with your hand while you hold him, and throw the ball. “When the ball stops moving and you remove your hand, does he actively search for the ball not knowing where it landed? We do that several times. If the dog is using his nose and problem solving, even if he can’t find the ball and needs a little direction, the fact that he eeps searching is really important.”

5. Create an obstacle between the dog and the ball. “Nothing that’s going to injure the dog—think bushes or stacking a bunch of chairs into a circle. The ball is thrown into the area that the dog can’t get in easily, so she’s going to have to figure out how to get to it. Does she keep persisting? Does she just barge right into the brush or woodpile and get that ball? You’re not trying to prevent the dog from getting the ball; you’re testing the dog’s true desire to attain that ball again.”

If the dog passes all these tests, then he can advance to specialized training with WD4C to test whether he can associate the ball with a scent and become a detection dog.

For more information or to download the evaluation test, visit: Rescues2theRescue.org/have-a-dog


For more information about working dogs for conservation, visit wd4c.org. for more information about Rescues 2 the Rescue, visit Rescues2theRescue.org.

Photos courtesy of Working Dogs for Conservation

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