Article

A dog named Pips helps scientists by following a wild animal’s scent trail in a Washington forest.

Jaymi Heimbuch/Minden Pictures

STANDARDS

NGSS: Core Idea: LS1.D

CCSS: Reading Informational Text: 1

TEKS: Science: 3.10A, 4.10A, 5.10A; ELA: 3.6F, 3.6G, 4.6F, 4.6G, 5.6F, 5.6G, 6.6F, 6.6G

Dog Detectives

These dogs use their sensitive noses to help scientists study endangered animals

Jack weaves through a forest in Washington State, his nose to the ground. The 6-year-old Australian cattle dog mix has caught a whiff of something intriguing. He’s determined to follow the scent trail to its source.

Jack isn’t sniffing in the forest for fun. He’s a detection dog for Rogue Detection Teams. That conservation agency trains dogs to locate traces of wild animals for scientists to study. Often this means sniffing out their scat, or droppings.

Jack runs through a forest in Washington State. He’s a 6-year-old Australian cattle dog mix. Jack has his nose to the ground. He smells something. He’s eager to follow the scent to its source.

Jack isn’t sniffing in the forest for fun. He’s a detection dog. He works for Rogue Detection Teams. The group trains dogs to find traces of wild animals. That can help scientists study the creatures. This often means sniffing out animals’ droppings, or scat.

“I can tell when Jack picks up a scent,” says Collette Yee. She’s Jack’s handler and a research scientist with Rogue Detection Teams. “His mouth tightens, his nostrils twitch, and his tail starts to wag like crazy.” 

The samples the dogs find give scientists important information. Substances in the droppings provide clues about the diet and health of the wild animal they came from. If scientists discover problems affecting the animals, they can take action to help them. 

“I can tell when Jack picks up a scent,” says Collette Yee. She’s Jack’s handler. She’s also a research scientist with Rogue Detection Teams. “His mouth tightens, his nostrils twitch, and his tail starts to wag like crazy.” 

The droppings the dogs find provide scientists with clues about wild animals. They contain information about the animal’s diet and health. That can reveal problems the animals are facing. Then scientists can take action to help. 

The Nose Knows

Dogs excel at all kinds of detective work because they are superior sniffers (see Lifesaving Sniffers). Their sense of smell is 10,000 times more sensitive than a human’s. That allows them to sniff out faraway odors that humans can’t smell at all, like tiny bits of animal scat.

Droppings give off odor molecules, tiny particles that carry scents through the air. When a dog sniffs, cells inside its nose called scent receptors capture these molecules and send signals to the brain. The brain then determines what the smell is from (see How a Dog Uses Its Nose)

Your nose works the same way. But dog noses have at least 50 times more receptor cells than human noses do, says biologist Pascale Quignon. That allows dogs to smell very faint scents—like the slime trail left behind by a snail. 

Dogs are good at all kinds of detective work. That’s because they are great sniffers (see Lifesaving Sniffers). Their sense of smell is 10,000 times better than a human’s. They can sniff out faraway odors that people can’t smell. For example, dogs can smell tiny bits of animal scat. 

Droppings give off odor molecules. These tiny particles carry scents. When a dog sniffs the air, odor molecules rush into its nose. They latch onto cells inside. These cells are called scent receptors. The receptors send a signal to the dog’s brain. The brain figures out what the smell is (see How a Dog Uses Its Nose)

Your nose works the same way, says biologist Pascale Quignon. But dog noses have at least 50 times more receptor cells than your nose does. That allows dogs to smell faint scents. They can even smell the slime trail of a snail. 

Jaymi Heimbuch/Minden Pictures

Scientist and trainer Collette Yee picks up an animal sample found by her dog, Jack.

Sniffing School

The dogs that work for Rogue Detection Teams are rescue dogs that once lived in shelters. To teach the dogs how to find certain scat samples, trainers present them with droppings from different species. They hide the samples in boxes with holes. When the dogs sniff the hole that covers the target scat, they get a ball. That teaches the dogs that finding that specific sample earns them a reward. 

“They quickly figure out that they have to find exactly the kind of sample we want in order to play,” says Yee. Eventually, the training moves outdoors, where there are many more distractions.

The Rogue Detection dogs are rescue dogs. They once lived in shelters. Trainers teach the dogs how to find scat from different species. Trainers hide the droppings in boxes with holes. The dogs sniff the holes to find the scat. When they do, they get a ball as a reward. That teaches them to find a specific sample. 

“They quickly figure out that they have to find exactly the kind of sample we want in order to play,” says Yee. The training later moves outdoors. There are many more things that could distract the dogs outside.

Jaymi Heimbuch/Minden Pictures

Handlers train dogs by asking them to sniff out scat hidden inside special boxes with holes. 

Recently, Jack was part of a study to learn if detection dogs are more accurate than humans at finding baby birds and bats that have died. The animals’ tiny bodies are often hidden in cracks in the ground or covered by leaves. The humans in the study found only 30 percent of the birds and bats. Jack sniffed out more than 90 percent. 

Not all dogs are cut out for the job. “We need dogs that are really energetic and completely obsessed with balls,” says Yee. “It’s basically a game for them.” 

Recently, Jack took part in a study. It aimed to see if dogs were better at finding certain animals than people were. People and dogs in the study hunted for baby birds and bats that had died. The animals are tiny. Their bodies often become hidden in cracks in the ground. Or they become covered by leaves. People in the study found only 30 percent of the animals. Jack sniffed out more than 90 percent. 

Not all dogs are cut out for the job. “We need dogs that are really energetic and completely obsessed with balls,” says Yee. “It’s basically a game for them.” 

Isabelle Groc

When dogs find a target scent, they are rewarded with a ball.

The Smell of Success

Jack has been working as a detection dog for four years. He can identify the smells of more than a dozen different species. His work is helping scientists monitor endangered animals, from bats to gray wolves. 

Based on the number of droppings Jack finds, scientists can estimate the size of a species’ population. Bits of prey in the droppings can tell scientists what the animals are eating. Hormones and other chemicals can indicate if the animals are pregnant or if they have toxic substances in their bodies. 

Jack has been a detection dog for four years. He can identify more than a dozen different species. His work is helping scientists keep track of endangered animals, from bats to gray wolves.

The number of droppings Jack finds can help scientists figure out how many animals live in an area. The droppings can also show what the animals are eating. That’s because the droppings contain bits of prey. They also contain hormones and other chemicals. The chemicals can show if an animal is pregnant or has toxic substances in its body. 

Courtesy of Center of Conservation Biology/Bud Marks

Dogs can even sniff out orca poop floating on the ocean!

Recently, Jack has been working with Yee to locate orca scat off the coast of Washington. The snot-like substance floats on the water’s surface. For a human, it’s not easy to see. But from a boat, Jack can catch the scent of the oily droppings from more than 500 meters (1,640 feet) away! Researchers from the University of Washington are studying the scat to find out why orca numbers are shrinking.

Rogue Detection Teams is working with scientists to come up with new ways to put the dogs’ sniffing skills to use. For instance, some dogs are learning to find trees with certain diseases. “So far, there don’t seem to be limits to what these dogs can do,” says Yee.

Recently, Jack and Yee have been working off the coast of Washington. They’re trying to find orca scat. The snot-like substance floats on the water’s surface. It’s not easy for a person to see. Jack works from a boat. He can catch the scent of the oily droppings from more than 500 meters (1,640 feet) away! Scientists from the University of Washington are studying the scat. They want to find out why orca numbers are shrinking.

Rogue Detection Teams is working with other scientists. The group wants to find new ways to use their dogs’ sniffing skills. For example, some dogs are learning to find trees with certain diseases. “So far, there don’t seem to be limits to what these dogs can do,” says Yee.

Back to top
videos (1)
Skills Sheets (2)
Skills Sheets (2)
Lesson Plan (2)
Lesson Plan (2)