The olfactory capabilities of dogs have been used by humans for decades. Dogs have been used to sniff out landmines, detect alien plant species, narcotics, exotic animals on airports and currently they are also being used to indicate virus outbreaks in hospitals. This shows to what extend dogs can be used. If you were to compare the olfactory cells of dogs and humans, you will find that there is a significant difference. Dogs have +/- 220 million olfactory where humans have +/- 5 million. Besides 60% of the brain of dogs is dedicated to smell compared to 12% in the human brain. Some odours can be smelled equally well by human and dog, but for other odours dogs are 10.000 times more sensitive than humans. This shows how specialised dogs are and how well their olfactory sensors are developed. Dogs can detect scents that we are not even aware of or that we are not able to see. This makes them extremely helpful for police and army work, hospitals, search and rescue teams and for scientific data collection in for example conservation.
At the core of our beliefs is the need to minimize human impact on the environment, while accepting that in almost all areas humans are now an integral component of most ecosystems. To this end, we work with conservation dogs of a number of kinds. Our conservation detection dogs are highly specialized and trained to find a variety of biological samples. These dogs are principally trained to detect scats (droppings) of target species. Training dogs to find cat poo might not be the most glamorous job in the world, but the information we can get makes it more than worth it. By labelling exactly where each sample is collected, we can estimate numbers very effectively by creating DNA profiles from the "owner" of the scat. DNA can be withdrawn from the scats by micro DNA-analysis. This will therefore give you a good indication of how many individuals utilise a certain area. Furthermore, the scats can give information on the diet, the distribution, the hormone levels, nutritional state of the animals and much more. This shows the importance of the scats and the wealth of information that can collected from it. Probably the best thing about training a dog to find scat samples of animals, is that you can collect vital information about the animal, without interfering with the animal itself. We have done surveys on Wild Dog and Cheetah and in 4 weeks of fieldwork never seen a single one of them, but we found the scats and obtained the data. This makes it a particularly useful survey method for species living at very low densities, or those that are extremely cryptic and utilise very large areas. Detection dog surveys can gather much more information, at much lower financial cost and lower risk and stress to the study animals. The use of Conservation Detection Dogs as a method of surveying has even proven to be substantially more effective and efficient (i.e., cost/detection) than remote cameras and hair snares for documenting the presence of target species.
Together with our dogs we are a team. They could not do the work without us and without them, we would not be able to collect the data that is needed. And most importantly, it is a lot of fun for the dog as well as the trainer!