A Climate For Change: How Conservation Detection Dogs Are Saving Species Around The World
As saddening as it sounds, it is estimated that 150 to 200 species of plant, insect, bird and mammal become extinct during the course of one day on our planet. Climate change, loss of habitat and other factors continue to put more species at significant risk of being completely wiped out.
Many of these animals play a critical role in maintaining the natural balance of our planet’s ecosystem. Without them, our way of daily life would be completely different, from the air that we breathe to the food that we consume.
This episode explores the fascinating stories behind three special people who are determined to make a difference. Each of them uses the amazing capabilities of dogs to help preserve our natural environment and protect endangered or at-risk species.
Jacqueline Staab & Darwin, the Bumblebee Detection Dog
Jacqueline Staab is a 28-year-old grad student from Appalachian State University. Jacqueline owns a German Shorthaired Pointer, Darwin, who has been trained to detect bumblebee nests.
The Alpine bumblebee is particularly important. These bees all live above 11,000 ft, with changeable weather and unusual conditions for bees to survive. As one of the few pollinators who live at such a high altitude, their importance cannot be understated – they have developed such close relationships with flowers for pollination.
Staab acquired Darwin when he was a puppy – on a mission to train him to be the first Alpine bumblebee detection dog in the western hemisphere. With bumblebee populations in decline – some research suggests they have dropped almost 30% in a generation – their work is more important now than ever.
During this episode, Staab describes her journey with Darwin, and how their amazing work will help to preserve the Alpine bumblebee for generations to come.
Christian Fritz & K9s 4 Conservation, protecting sea turtles
Christian Fritz is a military veteran, who founded a non-profit – K9s 4 Conservation – on the coast of Texas, focused on saving sea turtle populations.
Six of the seven sea turtle species are classified as threatened or endangered. Despite living on Earth since the age of the dinosaurs – over 110 million years ago – sea turtles are at risk due to a variety of factors. Although other animals such as raccoons and seabirds can feed on sea turtles, and climatic changes pose a threat, human interference from plastic contamination and poachers is an even greater danger.
With his dogs certified for search and rescue, Fritz and his working dogs scour the sand for any indication of Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles. Using sand from the sea turtle nests, Fritz can train his dogs to detect the scent of the nests.
The second part of this episode focuses on the fascinating and rewarding work Fritz and his dogs undertake to help preserve sea turtles.
Dr. Romane Cristescu & Detection Dogs for Conservation, protecting koalas
Dr. Romane Cristescu co-founded Detection Dogs for Conservation to help protect one of the most prominent symbols of Australia – the koala.
Koalas made the news recently during the scenes from the terrifying bushfire crisis in Australia. Even prior to this situation, koalas were struggling. The Australian Koala Foundation estimates there are anywhere between 43,000 and 100,000 koalas left in the wild.
Dr. Cristescu and her team are passionate about protecting the koala. She pioneered the use of dogs to locate koalas through scat. Her team looks for energetic, playful dogs – and harnesses their natural working qualities of canines to learn more about koala populations and habitats.
The final part of this episode of A Life of Dogs highlights the amazing work of Dr. Cristescu and Bear, as they try to help preserve the koala population through Australia.
We wish to thank everyone who was interviewed and shared their story in this episode.
You can find out more about Darwin the Bee Dog on his Facebook page.
You can learn more about Christian Fritz and K9s 4 Conservation at their website.
For more information about Dr. Romane Cristescu and Detection Dogs for Conservation, visit their section on the USC website.
We also want to thank our episode sponsors. Be sure to visit them to learn more and show them your support. Without their continued support our podcast wouldn’t be possible.
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Highland Canine Training, LLC
Click ‘Show transcript’ below to read the transcript from this episode of A Life of Dogs.
A Life of Dogs Podcast – Season Two, Episode Three (S2, E3)
Episode Name: A Climate for Change
Jacqueline Staab; Christian Fritz; Dr. Romane Cristescu
February 19, 2020
Jason: Support for A Life of Dogs is brought to you by Royal Canin. Royal Canin offers precise, effective nutrition for dogs based on size, age, breed, and to address specific needs. To learn more about Royal Canin, visit them on the web at royalcanin.com and by Highland Canine Training, offering professional dog training solutions and premier canine education. Learn more at highlandcanine.com.
I’m Jason Purgason and you’re listening to A Life of Dogs, the podcast that explores our life with man’s best friend and the amazing ways that we work and live together. You’re listening to Episode three of our second season. If this is your first time listening, be sure to check out our other episodes in our first and second seasons to hear some pretty amazing tales.
Across the globe, it’s estimated that between 150 and 200 species of plant, insect, bird, and mammal become extinct every 24 hours. In this episode, we discover the stories of some special people who are determined to save some interesting animals with the help of well-trained dogs. Many of these animals play a critical role in our ecosystem.
Jacqueline: Some plants can only be pollinated exclusively by bumblebees, a thing called buzz pollination where they vibrate at the perfect frequency for the plant to release its pollen. It’s actually a really cool evolutionary thing they got going on with some plants.
Jason: In 2017, the US Fish and Wildlife Service added the rusty patched bumblebee to the list of endangered species. Due to loss of habitat, diseases, climate change, pesticides and parasites, bumblebee populations have dropped almost 90% in the last 20 years. Considering the fact that every third bite of food that we eat is attributed to pollinators, this is clearly a dire situation.
Jacqueline: Basically, Alpine bumblebees are some of the only pollinators in the Alpine area, so they’re like a Keystone species, so without them like basically … a Keystone species means that a lot of ecological functions and stuff kind of rely on something that that species does. Like sharks are a Keystone species in the ocean and so without these Keystone pollinators, the Alpine ecosystem is completely going to change.
Jason: This episode begins with Jacqueline Staab, a 28-year-old grad student from Appalachian State University who’s paired up with a young German short haired pointer to help save the Alpine bumblebee.
Jacqueline: So the Alpine is kind of like a canary in a coal mine for climate change. Things that are happening up there. It’s happening drastically, like really quickly and over the past 10 years, the number of bumblebee species in that area have gone from two to three to five to seven. And obviously – well, you don’t know this – but bumblebees are limited. Their populations are limited by the number of nest sites and we know bumblebees can’t dig their own holes. So they live in abandoned mammal burrows, which is where Darwin comes in. But since they only have a limited number of resources and all these species are moving up in elevation, are able now to move up in elevation, they’re competing for those resources. And this could drive certain species to extinction, and change ranges, change populations. So it’s really important that we need to know that. Also, a lot of bumblebee nesting, ecology and biology information. getting that information has been hampered due to the inability to find bumblebee nests, so the only two ways I did a literature search and the only two ways, three ways I found. So the first way was to just systematically search yourself, which I did one summer.
Jason: Visually and just looking for them?
Jacqueline: Yeah. And I literally spent hours and hours and hours looking one summer and I found three nests, and I was out there five days a week looking for nests.
Jason: Pinpointing bumblebee nests can be incredibly difficult. They can consist of a tiny hole buried in the grass, recognized by a single bee going in or out every few minutes. To improve efficiency and finding these elusive sites, other strategies have to be used.
Jacqueline: So I looked into other ways, and there have been other successful people had used volunteers where they all kind of like walk next to each other in a line and look for it, but if you’re in the Alpine environment of Colorado, that’s not safe. First of all, you’re in Park County. You’re not going to find that many volunteers that are going to stop mining or whatever they’re doing day to day to go and help you find bumblebees. There just aren’t that many people and they’re all busy working. It’s not like a college/university town where you can just find all kinds of volunteers, so that wasn’t going to happen. Plus, the terrain’s a little bit dangerous to have a bunch of inexperienced hikers. They’re long days, long miles, and so we had to find another way and so I ran across this paper in my research, Waters 2011 out of Great Britain and they actually had the British army train a dog for conservation, for bumblebee conservation to find bumblebee nests.
So it was a two year old Springer spaniel that they found and they trained him up to do it and they tested him, tested the efficacy and stuff, and he did great. He found all five nests in a 250 by 50 square meter plot. They had five different species. So they found the cues they used to find bumblebee nests are the same across species. So they’re able to find, like Darwin has found in his training, he’s been able to find nests in wax from [unclear audio] and he’s able to find them from different species, which is really important and what we need. So that’s really great.
Jason: So at this point you may be asking yourself, what makes someone want to go out search for bumblebees that are known by most people for their painful stings?
Jacqueline: First of all, they’re not scary at all. They’re actually really cool and fuzzy and cute. Like if you’re a dog person, you could totally be a bee person cause they’re fuzzy and wonderful. They won’t just sting you for no reason. I’ve only been stung twice – once because I exploded a paint pen on one of them and the other one was actually under turgor, which means it was frozen. Basically, they go to sleep when they’re really cold. So I was handling it and I basically stung myself and I handle these guys all the time. So they’re actually really great.
Jason: There are currently over 250 species of bumblebee. So what makes Jacqueline so interested in the Alpine bumblebee?
Jacqueline: Alpine bumblebees specifically, they are different because they all live above 11,000 feet, which is really high. You know there’s a lot of spatial heterogeneity and just from place to place, it’s windy, the weather changes all the time. It’s really hard for bees to live up there so these bees have certain adaptations that have allowed them to live up there. And so since they’ve been up there by themselves with the flowers for such a long time, they’ve developed really close relationships with these flowers as far as pollination goes. So they have longer tongues. So flowers that require bees with longer tongues for pollination maybe won’t get pollinated or could go extinct so that’s really important. Basically, Alpine bumblebees are some of the only pollinators in the Alpine area. So, they’re a Keystone species.
Jason: In order to adequately survey the Alpine bumblebee, researchers are required to locate their nesting sites. These nesting sites are becoming more sparse, which creates some pretty interesting behavior from the bees.
Jacqueline: Basically, they live in abandoned mammal burrows because they can’t dig their own nest, but it’s like a big fight. In the spring when the Queens are competing, they’ll actually stab each other over nesting sites and try to circle one another, kind of like Game of Thrones. But the bees – they do! It’s pretty intense.
Jason: I first met Jacqueline at our facility in North Carolina, where she brought this lanky German short-haired pointer puppy to be evaluated. She was on a mission, a mission to develop the first bumblebee detection dog in the Western hemisphere.
Jacqueline: I got Darwin as a puppy. I decided to go with German short-haired pointers because I read that they smelled close to the ground. They kept their nose low. So I was like, well, if I’m looking for bumblebee holes, I might as well get one of those. Also, I’ve always kind of been into German short-haired pointers – they’re beautiful dogs. Anyway, I got little Darwin from a breeder in Virginia and I got him at eight weeks. He had good hunting and championship lineage. I got him for the purpose of my research.
Jason: As we found out, there are a lot of things you’re going to need in order to train an effective bumblebee detection dog. A great dog and a proven plan are critical to make it work, but more importantly, you’re going to need lots of bumblebees.
Jacqueline: I didn’t really know what I was doing. It was my first bumblebee colony ever. I’ve had honey bees, so I was like, cool, I can do this. No problem. But it was too cold barren, because I was doing it in the spring cause I wanted to get the project underway so I ordered them online. You can get them, I think it’s Koppert or something is the company, but you can order bumblebees online and they’re shipped to you, overnighted and then …it’s really funny, I get this frantic email from the Biology apartment. There are bees here. Somebody needs to come pick them up, and I walked into the mail room and they’re just buzzing in the corner.
Jason: They are in a box, right?
Jacqueline: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But anyway, so I brought them home and you just opened the door and let them go. There’s one exit/entrance hole. They basically come in a box and there’s like one entrance/exit hole and I just put them in my window with the entrance facing out and just block the rest of the window with towels, but after a while the hive starts getting big. That’s the fun part and they start to try to find ways out and increase their space. So they would start to chew the air holes open on the boxes and you could just hear them crunching it while you were sleeping. So that was really interesting. You’re just waiting for them to escape and sting you. But it was fine. I got stung once.
Jason: Did they escape?
Jacqueline: Yeah, totally. Sometimes, I’d come home. Well, I have a great roommate, Paige Anderholm. She was my roommate at the time and she would sometimes call me, at the beginning, she would call me and be like, Jacqueline, there are bees everywhere. Can you come home? Yeah, I’ll be right there. But eventually she got to the point where she would get in there when I had to get the nesting material, she’d get in there with me and handle it. So she really evolved as a bee person.
Jason: What exactly attracts a dog to the nesting sites of bumblebees may come as a bit of a surprise to some. A key difference between the honeybee and the bumblebee is what aids in their conservation.
Jacqueline: Honeybees are actually really neat and they usually poop and defecate outside their colonies, but bumblebees stink. They smell so bad so that definitely helped Darwin out in the beginning phases.
Jason: Even though Jacqueline and Darwin’s efforts are now focused in the Rocky Mountains of the United States, she has plans to use Darwin’s unique skillset to help with bumblebee conservation elsewhere.
Jacqueline: The plan with Darren eventually is to like do international bee conservation work. I want to go all over and help people with pollinator conservation cause it’s really important for the people too.
Jason: Bumblebees are in drastic decline across North America and Europe. Studies suggest that bumblebee populations have declined 30% in the course of a single human generation. Climate change, among other factors, seems to be having a huge impact on bumblebee numbers making Jacqueline and Darwin’s work more important now than ever
Jacqueline: Actually, now because the time bees are emerging and the time certain plants are emerging in the Alpine are super wonky now. They’re not as they were before, and that’s really important because in the Arctic for example, Bombus frigidus which is an Alpine bee, they always emerge within 24 hours of this Willow Catkins, which is like a Willow Bush, their flowers blooming, which is really interesting. So if the weather’s all crazy and the plants aren’t emerging at the right time, it could throw them off. And in that time when their colonies are so dependent when they first started establishing, if their plants are not out, that colony is going to go down, so it’s really important. Climate change could really have a lot of negative impacts on bumblebees, especially if the flower blooming timing keeps changing and stuff like that, with strange weather patterns, that could really mess them up. So that’s why we want to get in there now and get an eye on them, and the only way to do that really in this area is with Darwin
Jason: Up next, we hear how dogs are being used to combat declining numbers in turtle populations, and stay tuned to learn how scientists are using dogs to help save the koala, one of Australia’s most iconic marsupials.
Our next segment features Christian Fritz, a dog trainer and military veteran who founded K9s 4 Conservation after finding his calling to help sea turtles in Texas.
Christian: We have sea turtle nest detection dogs that we worked down the Texas coast with the national seashore and the University of Texas Marine Science Institute. That’s a pretty rare field of detection work at this point. As far as I know, there has been two other sea turtle nest detection dogs prior to ours.
Jason: With six out of the seven sea turtle species classified as threatened or endangered, caused primarily by human activity, it goes without saying that they need all the help they can get. Christian got involved in their conservation to some degree by accident.
Christian: I initially started working doing search and rescue, so I trained the human remains detection dog. I also trained them for tracking, and I trained a lifeline dog, so I had experience with detection dogs doing search and rescue stuff and was trying to figure out what to do for my girlfriend’s birthday last year. And she really liked sea turtles. And so I was trying to Google sea turtles in Texas to see if there’s anything we could go to – aquarium or something- and ended up finding the National Seashores website, where they talk about their sea turtle program. They have a nesting program here and I was reading, I saw it on the click hole. I was reading all the stuff about it. It was really interesting and they were talking about they have people that drive up and down the beach, that patrol the beach looking for nesting turtles, and ideally they will see the turtle on the beach and they can go over to the turtle and they can get measurements and check on her health and they’ll actually mark the nest while she’s still laying the eggs, and then they move back, let her finish laying the eggs and then she crawls back into the ocean.
Later on, they’ll come out and we’ll actually collect the eggs cause, in Texas they collect the eggs. There’s few enough of the nests and there’s enough threats from tides, predators and also from people, because you can drive on a lot of the beaches down here, but they actually collect the eggs and either re-nest them in protected corrals or they have an incubation facility at the National Seashore. So they collect those eggs and they move them, but sometimes they’re not there when the turtle is nesting. A lot of times we’ll be driving by and we’ll see tracks in the wet sand and the turtles that they’re specifically dealing with are Kemp’s Ridleys, which are the smallest sea turtle in the world. They are still about a hundred pounds. They’re not little turtles, but for sea turtles, they are little, and they like to nest when it’s windy. So the combination of high winds and small turtles means that the tracks they leave in the dry sand can be completely gone in 30 or 40 minutes. So the turtle crawls up, she lays her eggs, she goes back in the ocean and 30 minutes later you drive by and you might see some flipper prints in that wet sand so you know that a turtle crawled up and you know that a turtle crawled back into the ocean, but you don’t know where on the beach that turtle went. You know she could have laid her eggs the second she got off the wet sand. She could have crawled a hundred feet back and laid her eggs. You really have no idea. Did she turn? Did she …? I don’t know, and so at that point, when they don’t have any tracks, they employ a lot of different methods to try to guess where the turtle laid her eggs. Well, they often lay them in these areas or in this kind of sand. They’re looking for broken vegetation or places where loose sand is piled up on some vegetation where the turtle was fleeing, sand in the air. So trying to get every little thing they can and then they basically take their best guess and they have to go probe for the nest.
So they take these probes and they carefully insert them. You need years of training to be able to do this. They carefully insert them in the sand. It’s like looking for a landmine – very, very carefully, going through the area until they find the soft spot. It’s about eight inches across, and that will be the neck of the nest, and then they can dig it out. The problem is that can take them a couple of minutes. I’ve seen them. It’s pretty amazing. I personally witnessed one of their turtle techs come out and look and go, I’m pretty sure the nest is right over there, and I’m looking at it and there’s nothing on this beach that tells me anything. And he walked over and I think on the fourth poke, he got it. These guys are really good, but there are times when they don’t find them for hours, days and sometimes they never find them.
So, reading about probing for nests for hours, I was like, man, I bet they could use dogs for this, and so that’s when I sent an email in and Dr. Shaver replied to me, and she said, hey, we don’t have this capability anymore. And so I said, would you want that capability? And she was like, well, we don’t have a whole lot of money, so we can’t really afford $50,000 for a specialized dog, and so I offered to do it as a nonprofit. We can train the dog and handle the dogs for them and then they don’t have to even worry about it. We’re just there to help them out. I drove down to the beach. I met with Dr. Shaver. We talked for a number of hours and I went home and started training dogs that day.
Jason: As you heard in our previous story, Jacqueline was able to simply purchase bumblebees to train Darwin. In Christian’s endeavors to help save the sea turtles, getting the material he needs to train the dogs is difficult.
Christian: Yeah. So, what we use is sand from the nest. So once the turtle patrollers see a turtle, they mark the nest, they come by later on and they collect all the eggs, and at that point, it’s just a hole in the beach. And so we’ll scrape some of the sand out of the area where the nest was, and that’s what we use to train the dog. So they’re getting the smells of the turtle nests without actually having to have any turtle stuff, which is controlled cause they are an endangered species. One of the problems that we have with using the sand is that I don’t know how much scent is in any given scoop of sand. So, it’s impossible for me to say I’m going to start big and work down to minute amounts of smell because I don’t know how much smell I have. I can’t smell it. There’s no way to look at it and see. And so I just have to assume essentially that the scent is evenly distributed throughout the sample, even though I know that it’s not. And so that’s one of the big factors that’s kind of holding me back at this point, training-wise. I wish that exceptions were easier, but at the same time I understand why they are not. There’s, probably a lot more people trying to steal sea turtle eggs that are trying to train dogs to help the government find them and protect them. So I get it. I do wish that it was otherwise, but unfortunately that’s kind of where we’re at.
Jason: In his quest to preserve the sea turtle population, Christian trained with his dogs every day for months prior to actually exposing them to nesting sites on the beach. His work required lots of travel and tons of hard work.
Christian: We did daily training. I live in San Marcus, right between San Antonio and Austin, and we did daily training up here for about two months, and every two or three weeks, we would go down to the beach and we would practice on the beach and we would get to practice on real nests. So we would go out on days that we expected high nesting activity and the turtle patrols would mark a nest and we would come by and I’d worked the dogs on known locations. So I know there’s a nest here. I know where the nest is. I can work the dogs on it, and they were doing really well. I have some cool videos on the Facebook and on our Instagram page of the dogs working through those nests. There’s a great one where Saul is coming up the dune and he has this really, really great, probably 140 degree change of behavior where he snaps almost right back to where he was going as he came into the scent cone, works the scent cone perfectly, goes right up to the nest and indicates. It was a really great example of a detection dog working. So we train them up like that for a while, and then July I spent working the dogs only on the beach. So we worked a lot on the beach
Jason: After putting in lots of work to find sea turtle nests, Christian and his dogs finally got the call that they’d been waiting for. It was now time to see if all this work would pay off.
Christian: We got a call from the Marine Science Institute. The animal rehabilitation team runs their turtle patrol for Mustang and San Jose Island, and they had found tracks from a loggerhead turtle on Mustang Island …or not Mustang, it was on San Jose Island, and they’d gone out the day before and they spent four or five or six hours looking for this nest and they just couldn’t find it. They probed and they’d dug and dug and they probed and they couldn’t find it. so they called me up. They were like, Hey, can you come out? I was like, yeah, absolutely. This is literally what I’ve been spending these hundreds and hundreds of hours of training to do. Yes, please. Let me come help. So we had to take a boat out to the Island cause there’s no road that goes out there. It’s a privately owned Island, and the owners graciously allow the Marine Science Institute to come out and look for turtles and collect eggs on their property, which is really nice of them.
So we brought the dog out. We brought Dasha out on the boat and we had to take a little UTV halfway across the Island to where these turtle nests, where the turtle tracks were, and I let Dasha out and she started working and very, very early on, she crossed right by this one spot. She head-checked into a club of grass and I noted that to myself. I was like, okay, that was really good head check. That was definitely some interest and I mean, we’re dealing with some really, really faint smell. It’s really tough work. There’s not a lot of scents for them to work with. So, she checked that, worked some more and a couple of minutes later she started working from downwind, started working towards that same area, and after working through that for a little while, she finally got just about to where she had head-checked in that first sprig of grass and indicated the nest was right there.
From where she very first had that head check, it was probably three feet away. So she was able to go in, found the right spot, indicated and the biologist was out with us was able to probe and find the eggs and then we got to bring the eggs in, and it was only like 110 loggerhead sea turtle eggs. Loggerheads are an endangered species, so a nest that I got to go to help save that otherwise probably would have been predated. That was pretty cool.
Jason: It’s not only nest and that eggs are in danger. Weather in the winter months can also create a perilous situation for sea turtles. So Christian and his team of dogs are working on strategies to save sea turtles affected by cooler temperatures on the Texas coast.
Christian: One of the things we’re working on is to train the dogs so there’s another thing that happens with these Kemp’s Ridleys so much, at least not here in Texas. We have these barrier islands that go basically along the entire coast and inland of the barrier islands are these bays that are relatively shallow, and the juvenile green sea turtles like to go hang out in those cause there’s a lot of food there and they’re safer from predators. Not a lot of 14-foot sharks swimming around in 12 feet of water. So the juvenile green sea turtles will swim in there and they live there. The problem is when we have a really big temperature change, so we have these big Arctic fronts come through from Canada and it’ll drop the water temperature cause it’s so shallow in the Bay from 70 degrees to 45 degrees sometimes overnight, but certainly in a matter of a day or two. And that drastic of a temperature change doesn’t allow the juvenile greens enough time to swim back out to the Gulf of Mexico, cause there’s only a very few places where there’s cuts in the islands where they can get through. What happens is the turtles get hypothermic, we call it cold stunting. So the turtles get cold stunned at about 48 degrees water temperature and they can’t move. So they just kind of float in the water and the wind pushes them up along the shore and they get washed up on the beach, so they’re vulnerable to getting hit by boats cause they can’t swim out of the way and they’re floating on the surface. They can drown because they can’t do anything. They can’t even have the energy to lift their head out of the water to breathe. They can also freeze to death, and then when they wash up on shore, anything can just come along and eat them.
They can’t get away. There’s nothing they can do. They are just stuck there on the beach, and so one of the things that we are trying to train the dogs to do is actually to go out and help find those turtles. In fact, last Wednesday, I went down and helped save some of the Simpson Golds and Greens, and you are walking on the beach and you’re like, there’s one, there’s one, there’s one, there’s one, just lined up along the beach. but there’s other places where it really looks like a mud island. It’s only an inch out of the water and you jump in and you sink up to your knees in mud and you’ve got to slog across this Island to see if there’s any turtles, if there’s bubbles or grass. These are all things that people aren’t going to be able to detect a turtle in, right? If there’s a bunch of bubbles, you might not be able to see a turtle inside that. Well, the dogs aren’t looking; they’re smelling. So the dog picks up the scent. They’re going to be able to go in; plus, my dogs love it in the cold and the mud. You throw him out of the boat into knee-deep mud and it’s 40 degrees outside. They’re going to have the time of their lives. They love that stuff. So they can go cover an island and if they detect the turtle, we can bring the boat around, swing by, jumped out, get the turtle and bring it back, and if there’s a turtle, we put the dog on the boat and go to the next island and not have to get off ourselves and trying to slog around through this island.
Jason: Training dogs to save sea turtles is phenomenal work, but as Christian explains his work has some other pretty cool perks.
Christian: Getting to watch the turtles come up on the beach and lay their eggs is really, really, really cool. The whole first year, I kept missing it. I would drive up right after the turtle went back into the water just again and again. This past summer, I was actually the first one there on a couple of turtles. One day we had a small rainstorm and we had four turtles crawl up within a mile of each other, and all right about the same time. So, getting to see the turtles come up was something really cool, but I think probably the coolest thing is watching the babies going into the ocean. There are just hundreds of them. They’re adorable. They’re running off into the ocean. In the water, they just start swimming and they’re really, really cute, and I think that’s one of the coolest things to watch is the little babies hit the water and swim for the first time.
Jason: Be sure to stay with us as our episode continues. When we return, we head to Australia and learn how a dog named Bear is helping save animals that are often mistaken for bears.
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Announcer: The bush fire crisis has had a huge impact on South Australia’s wildlife. Tens of thousands of koalas and kangaroos killed and grave concerns about the survival of some of our unique species. The Army and volunteers…
Romane: My name is Dr. Romane Cristescu. I’m a research fellow at the University of the Sunshine Coast and I created a special team that trains dogs to look for koalas in koala habitat, and we are called Detection Dogs for Conservation and we are in a little part of Australia called the Sunshine Coast. It’s in Queensland and we work all around New South Wales and Queensland, where koalas are quite vulnerable.
Jason: Dr. Cristescu has studied koalas for years. Her dedication to the species led her to crawling around on her hands and knees in the Australian bush for months at a time looking for koala scat, a critical piece of information that provides insight into the current state of the koala population. After years of collecting scat on her hands and knees, she felt that there had to be a better way. Suddenly she was struck by the idea of training a dog for the job. She presented her idea and was quickly laughed at and ridiculed, until she met a dog trainer who felt that the concept was valid. With some help, she developed and began to work her first koala scat detection dog. Soon thereafter, she was able to prove that the dog was a better option for the koala population.
Romane: We couldn’t do that with threatened species. We need to be better at it. And so we published that work, and we started talking to government and we started talking to researchers and to university to say, look, the current method is not that great, and you need more accuracy in your surveys because otherwise you’re going to make the wrong decision for this endangered animal. And this is how it all started. And then after that survey and after that comparison between my first scat detection dog and the human team, I was never going to go back to look for scats myself. The difference is just too big. We need to work with detection dogs [unclear; 6:30] much more than we are currently.
Jason: This idea took off and now she has a number of dogs in the field helping with her conservation work.
Romane: Four of our dogs are trained on scats; two on every scat – young one, old one, year old one. It’s all good. It’s too much habitat and the other two are trained on fresh scats only. So they ignored everything that is more than a week or two old, and now only take us to the freshest of the freshest scats. And then we had our only dog that is trained on the koala itself, the animal and the training was so different. the same training on scats is so you, I like dogs are excellent. I mean if you have a dog at home, they’re probably really good at sniffing poo, right? so that’s the easy part. They sniff it in their routine daily life anyway. So you just have to introduce that special poo, the koala poo and tell them when you snip that, that’s when we’re going to play.
And so the training for us, and that goes back to the old dog being OCD for play. It’s just a very simple association learning. So there’s a target scent you want, and for us it was koala scats and there’s a reward that the dog wants. And for all our dogs, it’s playing and so you just associate those two things, and dogs are obviously extremely intelligent. So that association happens in only a few days and very quickly they understand that each time they smelled that, they’re going to get to play and therefore they really, really actively search for that scent, and then when they find it, it’s right there in front of their nose. We tell them to drop to get rewarded and so that’s an easy thing to teach as well and then we have a detection dog for that scent. Now because they are conservation dogs, we then have a lot of work around them not chasing wildlife, reinforcement testing.
Jason: Considering the specialized work that is required and the environment that these teams have to work in, where does one find such special dogs for this amazing job?
Romane: We often say that it’s one in a million, and maybe it’s exaggerating, but not that much. It’s really hard to find a perfect dog for this job because they need to be ball-obsessed and want to chase small, fluffy quickly moving tennis balls. But at the same time we asked them to not want to chase small, fluffy little rabbits or possums that would run in front of them when we are in the bush, because they are conservation dogs, they actually are deployed in national park and really beautiful environment and we’ve got a duty of care for all the animals that live in that environment. And so we look for the dog that has a very high play drive, wants to play all day with us because that’s the motivation. That’s the reason why they are so happy to be with us, but at the same time we’re asking those dogs to not want to prey on any of the animals that are working, or that are living in the environment we work. So it’s a very difficult trade to have both that high play drive that they will prey drive and never wanting to chase any wildlife. and so it’s lucky for us that we are able to assess a lot of dogs in pounds because it’s very rare for us to find the right dog.
Jason: Dr. Cristescu goes on to explain that the dog they’re often looking for is one that many people wouldn’t be interested in.
Romane: It’s an interesting process but we select the dogs that are probably the people’s worst nightmare. They are high energy. They are totally obsessed by playing. They will not leave you alone. that’s because they want to play more than anything. They want to play more than they want to be patted or they want food for instance, for example. And so we actually go and rescue them. They are often abandoned because they are too much as a pet. and so we, we go to pounds and dog rescue groups and we ask them for their most crazy dogs, and the dogs that will never stop, that wants to run all day and that’s we want, which is good for the dog because obviously, that gives them a second chance at being who they really are. And the reason we want the craziest dog possible is that this is a way for us of forming a relationship where the dogs gets what they want out of it as much as we do.
So they want to play all day. We want to collect ecological data all day. And so it’s a perfect match because each time they find what we want, they get to play and they want to go to play every day. I often say, even though they are classified as working dogs, our dogs are play dogs. They only come with us because they want to play with us, and each day that we don’t go into the field, and that’s sometimes happen on weekends rarely, they’re very disappointed. They hate holidays and they hate Sundays if we don’t go to work because they find it very boring. So this is what we look for. a personality really that is, we call them what year if you want. just that obsession for playing is what we look for first and foremost
Jason: Training scat detection dogs to survey the koalas was something that the team got really good at, but in time they felt as though they needed something more. The koala is an elusive creature, spending most of their time sleeping or hiding in trees. Because of this behavior, the group took on the challenge of training Bear, a task that would prove not to be as simple as the dogs before him.
Romane: The scent part of the scat detection dog line of work is really easy. When it comes to Bear who was trained to indicate on koala, on the animal itself, that was actually extremely hard, and that took us a long time to really nail it and narrow down what it is that we want him to find, because we didn’t want him to find the urine or we didn’t want him to find the scats because we knew everywhere that would be a koala out, they would be urine and there would be scats. So we would be wasting a lot of time on those two odors that are always present, no matter where we are able to find a koala, because that’s their environment. That’s where they poop and that’s where they pee. So we actually use those odors as an odor to be trained not to indicate on, and so those were all negative odor, if you want, non-target odor.
We didn’t train Bear to indicate on those odors, but we always had fur in the lineup, and so we first we train him with fur and it was quite an interesting process because obviously you have to collect fur, which is not as easy as collecting scats. And so we had to work with vets and koala hospitals who very nicely donated all their fur to us. Then we had a lineup between fur from koala and fur from other animals to really teach Bear this is the animal we want, and all of that was really easy because we had collected this fur. We can put it on the ground. He can go straight to the source of the odor and you can reward. Obviously, the hardest part was to actually graduate from fur on the ground to an animal, a live animal in the tree, so we did a lot of working in parallel with people that had koala and knew where koala had walked and training Bear to scent the track. And then we did a lot of work with people that had animal that were wearing color because it’s easy for me to go around and drop koala scats and test the dogs on the scat, but I don’t have a koala in my pocket. So I couldn’t easily just drop a koala in the environment, and then teach Bear where the koala was, so the training and the testing of Bear was much harder and involved a lot more partners because we needed people that koala wearing red, you’re tracking color so that they couldn’t know every day where the koala were, and so we could then test Bear on those koalas. So it was a very long process and much, much more difficult and a very different training at the end than the scat detection dog
Jason: Bear’s job is substantially more difficult than the other dogs on his team. The location in which the koalas live and their elusive behavior makes his job quite challenging. This often leaves Bear slightly frustrated with his handler.
Romane: If you can imagine a koala up to 10, 20, 50 meter in a tree, and Bear is trained on their scent. So he’s on the ground. He’s not climbing trees obviously, so he needs to tell us where on the ground is the strongest scent of koala, and so sometimes if there’s no wind and the conditions are great, the scent just trickles down and Bear can find a scent at the bottom of the tree, but sometimes the scent is actually quite far from the tree, so he’s definitely got the hardest job of all our dogs. All the dogs are actually sniffing things on the ground that are koala droppings so that they’ve got an easy life there. So we both train down air scenting, so scenting the smell of the koala that trickled down from the tree, but also I’m tracking when koala move from tree to tree, they leave a track and dogs are good at following tracks. So he’s also doing that. Then trying to switch from one to the order and get us as close as possible to the koala that he can.
And then when he’s pretty confident that he’s as close as can be, he drops, so we actually train him to not bark because we don’t want to be frightening the koala obviously, and so he’s very quiet and he just drops and stays there and wait for us to actually see the koala, and poor Bear has to work with a team of humans and we often let him down because koalas are so hard to spot in trees, even though they are quite big, arboreal animals, they’re very quiet and they don’t tell you that they are there. They are often sleeping, but sometimes they’re looking at you when they see where you are and they quietly go around the trunk to hide from you, cause they don’t want you to find them. We always have a very tough job and we can only reward Bear if we hit a koala because this is part of the training they get to play with their toy when they found the odor. so Bear sometimes gets a bit frustrated at us for not being quick enough in our tasks when he’s done such a good job.
Jason: Over the years I’ve learned from my Australian friends that koalas are not to be called koala bears, as many Americans make the mistake of doing. As such, I found it ironic a dog trained to find koalas would be named Bear, so I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to learn about the origin of Bear’s name.
Romane: It’s funny that Bear is called Bear because it is true that a lot of people call koala koala bear, even though obviously they are very, very far from bears, and in that tree of life that I was talking about, they are marsupials so very far from bears. The funny thing is that this is just a coincidence because we rescue all our dogs, and when we are lucky, they come with their history and they come with a name and that was the case for Bear. So we didn’t have to name him because we actually had a bit of his history and we knew that he was already called Bear, and so we kept his name out of respect for him. Apparently, he was originally called Panda and then became Panda Bear, and by the time he reached us because he was rescued and abandoned a few times before we got him, by the time he reached us, he was Bear, which is a funny coincidence.
Jason: Australia is often known for being the home of some of the deadliest animals on the planet. In order to find a creature as cuddly as the koala, Romane and her team have to work in an environment that provides some considerable challenges.
Romane: So obviously some times of the year, it is a little bit hot, so that’s one of the thing that we have to be careful with our dogs, to be mindful of how quickly we can get really hot, and that’s also true for the handler, but our beautiful eucalyptus forest that we work in and we ecologists actually love being there, but a lot of people have told us how scared they are to walk into the forest because Australia is famous for snakes, and it’s got some of the most venomous snakes in the world so we have to be careful of that. There’s no zero risk, but all of our dogs ignore snakes. They are obviously not going to chase them so that decreases a little bit the risk, and then we also train them on very good commands so if we see a snake, we can stop the dog in its track and react to that, but we do have to be a little bit cautious of that for sure. And then the last thing people tell us is that the bush is very dense. It’s very scratchy. It’s very hard work. But I think both the dogs and us are just loving that environment. Put us in the middle of the big city and that would get a different response, but put us in a big forest and we are quite happy.
Jason: Even though the work for both the dogs and humans is hard, Romane explains that it also comes with some substantial rewards.
Romane: It’s just every day that you get to spend in nature and the natural environment is very special. And I think often I just stopped and I’m here and surrounded by beautiful old trees and the dog running around at my feet, and you just stop and you wonder how lucky one can be, and you wish that more people could spend more time in the bush because this is what sustains us. I think the beauty of nature, the beauty of the flora around us and when we are lucky, because wildlife does want to hide from us because we are the top predator really. But when we are lucky and we see some wildlife, whether it’s the lizard or the bird or when we extract a koala in a tree, we are just reminded how little we are and how much more important the natural ecosystem is, which we are part of, but we sometimes remove ourselves from and I think it’s not good for humans to be far removed from the ecosystem that sustained their life and because of its beauty that we shouldn’t forget, but also because we really must be aware that we need to protect that life support system. Otherwise we’ll be in a lot of trouble. Just a reminder of how beautiful nature is and that we need to stand up and protect it. This is the time.
Jason: The work of these conservation teams is more important now than ever. With koala numbers in decline over the past several decades, the recent wildfires in Australia have only increased the need to save the koala. It’s estimated that more than a thousand koalas have been killed in these fires, not to mention the loss of their precious habitat and food sources.
Romane: So koalas have a wide distribution in term of area they can live, but they are pretty limited to the coastal area. That’s the primer, if you want a higher density. You can call it quite a hotspot if you wanted to, and sadly, this is also where humans love to live, the coastal area, but also those are the most fertile area in term of agriculture. So, for quite a long time now we’ve been in direct competition with each other and humans tend to win obviously. so that’s the basic of where koala lives, and then those fire came this year and they are more intense than almost any fire that we had since record time, and since we had recorded fires and they also hotter and they also outside of the normal fire season. So those fires are unusual and obviously I’m not a climate scientist so the fire people call them mega fires now are unusual. And even though I’m not a climate scientist, I read enough paper and I’ll talk to enough climate scientists who think that these fires are out of the norm because of climate change. And so it’s not a good news for koala because the area that have burned, especially this year, is what we call prime koala habitat down in that big coastal fringe in New South Wales in particular and Queensland. And if you look at a map of where koala like to live and where those fires have been, there is a very good overlap, which is obviously adding to all the stress that koala already have to cope with, and in a changing climate and the koala are not going to cope very well there.
Climate change is one of the threats listed under the IECN classification and for good reason, because as we seen, there’s a direct induced death by fire, which is terrible and has hit really big well-known koala population where hundreds are feared to have been lost in the fire. So that’s the direct, very visible impact. Maybe direct but maybe not as visible is the threat of heatwaves. Koalas are not really good with coping with very many hot days in a row if you want. They’ve always lived with some hot days, but many in a row, it’s very difficult for them to regulate the temperature. And so they are actually dying of overheating, which is terrible and has potentially impacted a lot more population than we’ve seen because it’s a bit harder to detect if you are not there in the forest. Does it happen? And then there’s threat that maybe we don’t quite understand yet, but is the threat of the impact of increased CO2 in the atmosphere on plant growth. Plants move as quickly. The distribution to adapt to new climate conditions. So maybe some of the food trees that koalas use are trees that are not going to be able to adapt quickly enough to climate change. So maybe just basically the trees that koalas need are not going to be there anymore.
So all those things are a bit more uncertain, but we know that with all those different impacts, climate change is not going to be good news for koalas, and basically it is adding to the many heavy threats that are koalas are already struggling with. You know, every species deserves that we fight for them in this climate, but yeah, koalas have a special place in my heart for sure.
Jason: Thank you for joining us for this episode of A Life of Dogs. Be sure to head over to our website at alifeofdogs.com for some great bonus content, and to learn how you can support these remarkable conservation teams and the work that they do. A special thanks goes out to Jacqueline Staab, Christian Fritz and Dr. Romane Cristescu for helping us bring you their unique stories. this episode was produced by Jason Purgason and Abby Trogdon. I hope you have enjoyed these stories. Don’t forget to subscribe to our show wherever you get your podcasts and be sure to leave us a review