Center for Conservation Biology

FAQs about Conservation Canines

Frequent questions

Selection

Do you get your dogs from a breeder?
How do you select dogs for the program?
Can my dog work for you?
Are there any specific breeds that work better?
What ages are the dogs when we get them?
Where do we get our working dogs?
What happens if the dog does not fulfill the needs of the program?

Training

How do you keep the dogs motivated to work on long projects?
How many species can one dog find?
How do they know when to search for one species versus one of the others they have been trained on?
How long does it take to train a dog to locate scat?
How long does it take to teach them a new species?

Care

What do the dogs do when they’re not working?
What do you feed your dogs?

Fieldwork

Where are the field studies located?
What is an average day like for the dog?
Where do the dogs stay when on projects?
Do they sometimes get bored or tired of searching?
What happens if the dog finds the actual animal (Jaguar)?/ Will it go after it?
Does the same handler work with the same dog each time?

Data collection

What type of data do you collect?
Do you supply the equipment for data collection?

Lab analysis

What type of information can you get from scats?
How much does it cost to have a sample analyzed?
Do we have to have our samples analyzed with your lab or can we use another lab?
What are the benefits of using your lab?

Hiring teams

How much does it cost to hire a team?
Can I hire the dog and work them myself?

Helping out

Can I volunteer for Conservation Canines?
How do I make a donation to support Conservation Canines?

Employment

How do you select your handlers?
Do I need experience working with dogs?

Retirement

How many years can a dog continue working?
What happens when a dog retires?


Selection

Do you get your dogs from a breeder?

No. We maintain contact with a number of animal rescue and shelter organizations in Washington and Oregon that alert us when they have a dog that might make a suitable candidate for our program. We also visit these shelters and rescues annually to communicate with staff the type of dogs that would be good in our program. We pride ourselves on giving dogs that cannot be in a home a second chance at life.

How do you select dogs for the program?

We run a number of exercises for determining if a dog is suitable for our program. Some of these tests are simple enough as bouncing a tennis ball. This can give us a good idea if the dog has the ball drive we are looking for in a candidate, but further testing is still required back at our facility.

Can my dog work for you?

We constantly have people stating, “My dog would be perfect for your program.” In most cases, a dog that has successfully been placed in a home does not have the qualities we are looking for. We’re looking for dogs that have so much drive that shelters have a difficult time trying to place them in a home.

However, on few occasions we have had owners that are at their wits end and can no longer house a dog with the energy requirements their dog possesses. Here is an example of one letter we received that we decided was worth testing:

“Thank you for your time. The test you have suggested are par for the course with *****. I have to do these exercises on a weekly basis just to save my arm from falling out of its socket. I will address the tests that you have set out for me.

1.) ***** does not tire of playing with her ball ever. In fact our daily exercise consists of walking to the park and playing ball. Let me stress that playing ball is not what it sounds like. I have to take two racquetballs with us. I throw the first ball as far as I can. I was a decent college athlete, which puts the ball about 100 yards away. She runs top speed after the ball, which is faster than any other dog at the dog park, save for the occasional greyhound. She lopes back to me at which time I throw the second ball as far as I can, she runs at top speed after it. Repeat, repeat, repeat for up to two hours before she begins to wind. Only the extreme heat of Southern California summers can slow her down. If we are near water she will fetch the ball until she almost drowns from exhaustion. I have to stop the exercising because I am afraid that she will drop dead. She will not let any other dog near her ball. She is not a friend favorite because she will not stop dropping the ball on people’s feet. In fact, quite annoying for most people to say the least. I am used to it.

2.) Searching for the ball is one of her favorite games. She will find the ball in four-five feet of wild grass. She will find the ball in 12-24 inches of fresh powder snow. She will swim to the bottom of the shallow end of the pool to get the ball. Trust me it is amazing to watch. She responds to my hand direction with surprising accuracy when she does need help. Not very often.<

3.) I learned a long time ago to just let her have the ball. If she doesn't have it, she will not stop looking for it. If I hide it she will find it no matter what, inside cupboards, hanging up on a tree branch, (yes, I have see her climb a small tree) stuck on a pole (she tore the top off a XL size Kong toy trying to get it off) under my feet, (she has torn holes in my shoes), she has cleared fences when the ball went over. She has torn down chain-link when the ball went over as well. You cannot stop this dog. Her eyes burn with fire when you try to take the ball away, unless of course to throw it. She will do anything for the ball. This sort of intensity is what most people have no idea about."

Are there any specific breeds that work better?

While breed does play some part in the selection, we evaluate every dog we see at a shelter. We are interested in finding dogs that “air scent,” these are generally the working breeds including, Labradors, German shepherds, border collies, and Australian cattle dogs to name a few. Bloodhounds and other scent-tracking dogs generally are poorly suited for this work.

What ages are the dogs when you get them?

We accept dogs between one-and-a-half to three years old.

Where do you get your dogs?

Our program prides itself at helping dogs that are unable to live as pets due to their high-energy needs. We work closely with Animal Control, the Humane Society, animal shelters, and other rescue groups to place unadoptable dogs in our program. In rare occasions we help owners with high-energy dogs. These cases provide an excellent opportunity in that the dog is able to return to the owner once they have matured and settled down over a number of years.

What happens if the dog does not fulfill the needs of the program?

Space is limited in our program and it is important to us that we help the dogs that have nowhere else to go. The rescue groups we work with understand our situation and are wonderful at allowing us to test a number of possible candidates. Those that do not make the cut unfortunately have to be returned to the shelter. Before we return failed candidates we make sure they get the most of their time at our facility and work on general obedience, social skills, and hygiene. Our goal is to do as much as possible to increase their chances of getting placed in a home. In some cases, we are lucky enough to find potential adopters prior to returning the dog and work closely with the shelters to complete a successful adoption.


Training

How do you keep the dogs motivated to work on long projects?

This is mostly taken care of by selecting the correct dog at the shelter and further by matching each dog to each study. Generally it is not the length of the study or even the length of the day that takes a toll on motivation, but it is more the lack of samples (rewards) the dog finds on a particular study. The more samples the dog finds the longer it wants to work, in some cases we actually have to leash the dog to stop them from working. The fewer samples a dog finds, especially over weeks or months, the more their motivation declines. This can be managed with training exercises, hidden samples, visits to hot spots, or adding additional target species.

How many species can one dog find?

We have trained our dogs on up to 12 species. However, the more species you train on, the more scats you have to spend time rewarding for and collecting. So we generally try to manage the geographic areas the dogs visit and train them so that as few species as possible are found in an area at one time.

How do they know when to search for one species versus one of the others they have been trained on?

The dogs search for all the species they have been trained to locate. If we think a sympatric species the dog is trained on will cause difficulties we will train a new dog that is not trained on that species. We manage our dogs by geographic locations to avoid layering on sympatric species that may be important to one study and not another.

How long does it take to train a dog to locate scat?

The dogs make the connection between scat and ball fairly quickly, but repetition and consistency helps us teach them the goal of performing this task. Training does not take place all at once, and short sessions are more productive than drawn out difficult scenarios. Over a couple months we work up from the initial ball reward, to searching complex environments for hidden scats, to eventually locating wild samples.

How long does it take to teach them a new species?

Once a dog has learned and has experience working as a detection dog, we can teach them a new species in as little as a day. However, the species we are generally interested in locating are exceptionally rare and to solidify their ability to locate these species we take a number of weeks to acclimate them to the scent. The most important factor is to have a location of known habitat that allows us to introduce the dogs to wild scat.


Care

What do the dogs do when they’re not working?

During training and while home from projects, dogs are housed in a barn-like facility outfitted with personal 4×8 indoor areas connected to 4×8 outdoor areas. Indoor areas contain radiant heat. The facility is surrounded by a large fenced-in play area, which is in turn surrounded by a 4,300-acre forest owned by the University of Washington. Handlers are stationed 200 feet from the facility and remain in contact with the dogs on a daily basis.

What do you feed your dogs?

Wellness brand pet food donates 100% of our food. We feed a non-grain variety called Wellness CORE that is very high in protein. The Honest Kitchen also provides us a 30% discount that allows us to feed our dogs the best food possible while working in the remote backcountry. Our dogs work hard and they require a huge amount of calories and protein to keep them healthy. We make every effort to feed our dogs the best food possible.


Fieldwork

Where are the field studies located?

We are contracted for work around the world.

What is an average day like for the dog?

At the training facility dogs begin the day around 7 a.m. with a morning break followed by breakfast. Between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. they begin getting walks, bike rides, or jogs with handlers. This is then followed by practice problems until 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. when they are fed dinner. Dogs are let out again for a bathroom break prior to handlers retiring to bed around 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. We do this seven days a week.

The field dogs follow the same routine with eight to ten hours of fieldwork. Fieldwork is much more tiring on the dogs than practice, so they need to take days off. Generally they get one day off for every three days worked, but a dog is never asked to work more than it is capable and they get sick days just as a normal employee would.

Where does the dog stay when on projects?

When on field projects, dogs are matched with a particular handler. Dogs remain with their handler 24 hours a day and sleep in the handler’s quarters in a large wire kennel.

Do the dogs ever get bored or tired of searching?

Yes. If the dogs work long enough without a reward they will get increasingly distracted. We work to limit areas of low rewards and when possible visit areas of high rewards to increase motivation.

What happens if the dog finds the actual animal (Jaguar)? Will it go after it?

We train our dogs not to chase wildlife. We strive to make them as non-invasive as possible. Each dog is outfitted with a bear bell to alert nearby wildlife that we are in the area. Our dogs are also trained on distant downs and recalls.

Does the same handler work with the same dog each time?

No. Each handler is trained to work with each dog in the program.


Data collection

What type of data do you collect?

Our handlers are trained and equipped to collect track logs of surveys on Garmin handhelds, Dataloggers, and HP Ipaqs. In addition, for each sample we complete a customized electronic form that is spatially linked to a GPS location that can easily be imported into ESRI files as well as Google Earth. Customized forms can include characteristics of the scat, confidence in the scat identification, habitat characteristics, as well as link the sample to the team, time, and location of the sample.

Do you supply the equipment for data collection?

For a small rental fee, we will supply equipment. Or we can use yours.


Lab analysis

What type of information can you get from scat?

Scat contains an enormous amount of genetic, physiological, and dietary information about an animal that can be temporally tied to environmental change. DNA from scat is used to determine species, sex, and even individual identities, which enables us to estimate population size and distribution of wildlife over a landscape. DNA and other products from ingested food can also be used to determine diet. Hormone measures provide estimates of stress, nutritional status, and reproductive health; immunoglobulins in scat reveal immune system competence; and toxins reflect degree and types of exposure to different toxicants.

How much does it cost to have a sample analyzed?

This depends on what the sample is being analyzed for (e.g., species, gender, individual identity, or hormone measures). Please email rkn5@uw.edu for more information about lab analysis.

Do we have to have our samples analyzed with your lab or can we use another lab?

While we have a great lab and pioneered many of the non-invasive methods we use, sometimes it is easier to work with the lab you are most familiar with and we respect that choice. There is no requirement to use our lab if you hire our dog teams.

What are the benefits of using your lab?

Having a dedicated lab allows us to get instant turn around on samples, which allows us to maintain a dog’s accuracy. Our lab also has a vested interest in seeing the data produced as quickly and reliably as possible.


Hiring teams

How much does it cost to hire a team?

We are a non-profit organization that is strictly monitored to ensure that you are hiring teams at face value. Discounts for non-profit organizations are available for contracts lasting longer than two months and/or requiring more than two dogs. Please email heath623@uw.edu for more information about hiring our teams.

Can I hire the dog and work it myself?

We do not rent dogs alone. We do offer limited training options for inexperienced handlers, however it is much more cost effective and efficient to hire an experienced team. Having experienced handlers also maintains the quality of our dogs.


Helping out

Can I volunteer for Conservation Canines?

Volunteering is a great way to gain experience working with the dogs as well as helping show support for the conservation work they are doing. We have tasks for all levels of volunteers including landscaping, community events, dog exercising, facility maintenance, and field orienteering.

If you are interested in helping as a volunteer, please send a resume and cover letter to conservationcanine@gmail.com with the subject line Volunteer.

How do I make a donation to support Conservation Canines?

Private donations are essential for keeping our program running between contracts. If you would like to make a donation to support our mission, please visit our donate page.


Employment

How do you select your handlers?

We highly encourage interested applicants to visit our facility and volunteer for a brief period. We often tell people that being a dog handler isn’t a job, but a lifestyle. It takes a great deal of commitment and sacrifice to become a handler in this program.

Do I need experience working with dogs?

Not necessarily. We find that it is much more important that interested applicants have experience working in remote wilderness areas. We look more for a type of personality among our handlers than for specific dog experience.  We evaluate every applicant on his or her interaction with program dogs.


Retirement

How many years can a dog continue working?

This depends a lot on the individual, but we find most dogs work up to ages eight or nine.

What happens when the dog retires?

There are a number of options for dogs as they age in our program:

  1. Most often handlers will bond with particular dogs and request to adopt them when they are ready to retire. We ensure that if this is the case, handlers have the appropriate means of caring for the animal.
  2. In addition to the amazing fieldwork that our dogs participate in, we also have an indoor program that allows dogs to match samples to specific individuals. Since the initialization of this program we have found that a number of our older dogs do quite well in that it does not require the constant stamina of fieldwork. So those dogs that have the heart but not the legs are ideal for this position.
  3. A third option for retiring dogs is to place them in a forever home. After a few seasons in the field all of our dogs begin to mellow. A retiring dog will have worked 5 to 8 years in the field. At the end of this period they are more than suitable for a family atmosphere. All families are screened and dogs will not be released to families found unfit to care for the animal.
  4. A final option is that they remain here with us. We are currently looking into starting an Outreach Education Program attached to the canine program that would be perfect for elderly dogs.