Pepin is an 8-year-old Belgian Malinois trained to identify about 19 different scents.
In a demonstration at the Flathead National Forest office he’s finding wolverine scat Megan Parker placed out there earlier in the day. Parker is the Director for Research, and also a co-founder of Working Dogs for Conservation. The Missoula-based group is in the Flathead to talk with the Flathead Basin Commission about how dogs like Pepin could help in the effort to stop aquatic invasive mussels and weeds from getting into the area.
“They’ve proven themselves good at finding lots of things that are invisible to people, and we’re wondering how useful dogs can be for something like an aquatic invasive that’s invisible to people, or is indistinguishable from another plant,” Parker said.
Specially trained dogs have sniffed out scat for endangered animals, noxious weeds in a field of grass and weeds, and invasive, cannibalistic snails. Parker said the dogs have an advantage, because they’re using their noses, instead of their eyes, and can catch things people can easily overlook.
This idea wouldn’t be brand new; California and Minnesota already have programs using dogs to sniff out zebra and quagga mussels.
The mussels are small, usually the size of a fingernail, but they can grow up to 2-inches long. Parker says one of the challenges they’ll have in teaching the dogs is discovering how good they are at sniffing out not just the fully grown mussels, but contaminated water.
“You can see a mussel, so, if a dog alerts on a mussel, you can go- yes, good dog. But, if a dog alerts on even the water where some of these villagers, these microscopic, baby mussels are, if dogs can identify that, how does the human know to reward the dog, or if there’s a risk of that contaminating a lake,” Parker said they’ll need to discover how consistently the dogs can identify the mussels at different life stages.
The dogs work for reward; a toy. Pepin has a tug of war toy he and his handler play with once he’s found what he’s sniffing for.
If the Conservation Dogs are brought on board to sniff out aquatic invasive species in Montana Parker says the first step is to go somewhere else to train them on the scent.
“Because you cannot bring, for very good reasons, you cannot bring mussels into this state. Even dead ones, so, we have to find a place where they are contained, but they are available for us to train dogs on, and there’s a site in Alberta, and there’s Lake Mead, where we would do the testing and the training of the dogs there, and then bring them back to work at check stations,” Parker said.
It is illegal to transport aquatic invasive species, but Parker said their aim isn’t going to be getting anyone in trouble.
“People tend to think about dogs- oh, they’re searching my luggage, I might get in trouble. It needs to be out there that we really want to stop this species from coming in, help us, and let us look to make sure that it’s not on y our vehicle. You’re not going to get in trouble, we just really need to… scrape it off,” Parker said.
Flathead Basin Commission Executive Director Caryn Miske said they plan on having signs at check stations with dogs to explain what the dogs will be doing, and that they’re only sniffing for aquatic invasive species.
Miske said they’ll know if the Conservation Dogs will be working to find aquatic invasive species by March, and then they’d be here in time for this summer’s boating season.