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Train the Scat-Sniffing Dog

Like lots of other dogs, Train the Chesapeake Bay retriever sniffs poop. But unlike most canines, Train has a special reason for seeking out scat—helping scientists figure out populations and movements of Argentine animals.

National Geographic grantee Karen DeMatteo helped train the dog on command to repeatedly and reliably locate the scents of several species of forest predators, many of which are declining in number due to fragmented habitats, illegal hunting, and roadkills.

DeMatteo, a biologist at the University of Missouri at Columbia, brought Train to National Geographic headquarters last week to talk about her research—and, of course, give us office workers a bit of a pet pick-me-up.

As Train trotted around the room panting, bell jingling, DeMatteo told us how habitats in Misiones, Argentina (map), have become fragmented due to changes in land use, especially agricultural practices such as pine plantations.

Train and DeMatteo search for scat. Photo courtesy Karen DeMatteo.

That’s not good for some species—such as jaguars, pumas, ocelots, bush dogs, and little spotted cats—which depend on large swaths of territory to locate mates and prey. So biologists like DeMatteo want to figure out both how the carnivores are negotiating these “islands” of habitat, and also identify possible corridors that could allow them to move freely and minimize contact with people and roads.

Where’s the Poop?

For her research, DeMatteo could’ve used standard survey technology, such as radio telemetry, camera traps, or hair traps, to get information on the species, but all of those have weaknesses, she said. For example, an animal could avoid the part of the forest where the camera is set up. A better option, DeMatteo said, would be to find what the animals leave behind in the forest—their scat. (See pictures of research using scat.)

“The question becomes, how do you find it? That’s a really big forest, and scat’s not always really visible,” she told us.

Jaguar poop. Photo courtesy Karen DeMatteo.

The answer is detection dogs like Train, which “takes advantage of a domestic dog‘s incredibly extraordinary sense of smell,” she said.

Scat-sniffing dogs are like drug-sniffing dogs trained for law enforcement, except “instead of presenting cocaine and marijuana, we present jaguar and puma scat,” DeMatteo quipped. (Take a dog quiz.)

Forest Predators Revealed

So far, DeMatteo has taken Train into Argentina for two research trips—one in 2009, which surveyed nine regions and identified 192 scat samples, and most recently in 2011, when the duo searched 14 protected areas and found 289 scats. (Watch a video of Train at work.)

The key findings of the 2011 study reveal where certain species roam. For instance, the scat revealed that shy jaguars never stray outside protected areas, but that puma and little spotted cats live in both altered habitat—such as farmland—and protected areas, suggesting they’re more flexible in their habitat choices.

DeMatteo also got some of the first data on the “notoriously difficult to study” bush dog. She discovered the small, bear-like predator is also flexible in its habitat, living in environments as diverse as the Amazon rain forest and grasslands. (See a rare picture of bush dogs taken in 2008.)

DeMatteo will also take the scat data, combine it with GPS and spatial mapping locations of where the scat was found, and figure out each species’ habitat use and movement patterns. This, in turn, should tell her which areas would be best to create corridors between the isolated sections of habitat.

During the visit, we were treated to a scat-sniffing demonstration. DeMatteo brought some small sachets of puma scat and asked a few of us to hide them throughout the auditorium, and then let an excited Train loose. When he found a sachet, he’d sit and stare with his ears up and tail wagging, waiting for his reward—a friendly tug-of-war with a tennis ball.

Train playing tug-of-war at National Geographic. Photo by Christine Dell’Amore

“He lives to search because it involves a tennis ball,” she said. If only all of us were so easily satisfied.

Get more weird news at National Geographic News

Comments

  1. carol
    Napa Valley
    September 19, 2012, 12:45 pm

    “Which animal poops repeatedly in the same location always?” It eats grapes and craw fish. Puzzled. Carol

  2. [...] Karen describe her work with Train in the video and for more details check out our early blog post: Weird & Wild: Train the Scat-Sniffing Dog. A shy bush dog peeks out from its enclosure. Photo: Karen [...]