Podcast Episodes

The Iconic Race Of The North

Cast your mind back to March 2020 for a moment.

Across the world, only one topic is dominating the news cycle. The threat of a pandemic is looming larger with each passing day. A deadly virus – with the potential to drastically alter our long-held, cherished routines – is getting closer.

Yet in one corner of the globe, Covid-19 is not the center of attention. Far from it. Here, the air is crisp. The ground is laden with snow. And in this place, there is one long-held, cherished routine that will not be altered.

It’s March in Alaska, and that means one thing – the greatest sled dog race in the world is about to begin.

The Iditarod is here.

iditarod ceremonial start

In the coming weeks and months, we’ll be releasing a series of episodes focused on the Iditarod. This iconic sled dog race takes place throughout Alaska each March, running from Anchorage to Nome. Mushers and their team of sled dogs battle challenging terrain, sub-zero temperatures and heavy blizzards in their attempts to reach the finish line in first place. Winners typically battle for eight to nine days in these hazardous conditions.

At A Life of Dogs, we were very fortunate to capture the magic of the Iditarod when we traveled to Alaska to cover the 2020 edition. It was an experience we will never forget – and we can’t wait to bring some amazing stories to you in our upcoming episodes.

Introducing the Iditarod

So, you may have heard about this famous sled dog race – but how much do you actually know about it?

In our first episode, you’ll learn a little about what makes this race so special.

Whether it’s the sheer amount of preparation it takes for mushers and their teams to succeed in this treacherous race, or the tradition of the ceremonial start in Anchorage, or to what some mushers describe as the almost spiritual experience of traveling out on the race route with a pack of sled dogs – there are so many interesting stories surrounding the Iditarod.

alaskan husky sled dog

Musher interviews

Riding through the harsh Alaskan landscape with a pack of sled dogs isn’t for the faint of heart. As you may imagine, it takes a special type of person to compete in the Iditarod.

Even with this undisputed bravery, many mushers have to scratch from the race before its completion for a variety of reasons. Mushers may be forced to drop out if they sustain an injury or their sled becomes damaged beyond repair.

In the coming weeks, you’ll hear from some of the most famous names in the mushing world. They include the likes of Martin Buser, a four-time Iditarod champion originally from Switzerland. In our inaugural episode of this series, Buser offers an overview into the origins of the Iditarod. 

In addition, we’ll be bringing you the unique stories behind many of the competitors in this year’s race – from seasoned veterans to rookies embarking on their maiden Iditarod voyage.

The importance of the Iditarod to Alaska

The event begins on the first Saturday in March with a ceremonial start in Anchorage. Mushers and their sled dog teams ride through the center of the city to the acclaim and cheers of locals, sled dog enthusiasts and visitors (and podcast crews!). This opening ceremony is a relaxed affair and a rare opportunity for the mushers to interact with spectators. The following day, the race is restarted at Willow Lake – and this is when the competitive aspect of the race kicks in.

The Iditarod holds an incredible amount of significance to the state of Alaska. Due to the climate and terrain, mushing and sled dogs have been a large part of Alaskan life throughout the state’s history. The Iditarod is seen as a vital link to the heritage of the state.

Sled dogs

Of course, the real stars of the show are the teams of sled dogs who lead their mushers through the Iditarod Trail. These dogs possess a unique mix of strength, speed and endurance, with an unwavering desire to run.

alaskan husky iditarod sled dog

Many of the modern day dogs competing in the Iditarod are mixed-breed huskies, weighing approximately 45 to 55 pounds. A team consists of a maximum of 14 dogs.

As you’ll discover in future episodes, one contentious aspect of the Iditarod is the welfare and treatment of the dogs involved. On one side, PETA and other animal rights groups allege that the race is cruel; on the other side, mushers and fans of the Iditarod maintain that the event harnesses the natural, inherent abilities of these dogs.  The Iditarod Trail Committee has stringent checks in place to monitor the health of every dog participating.

Look out for upcoming episodes!

This introductory episode is just the beginning of our coverage of Iditarod 2020. Remember to subscribe to A Life of Dogs wherever you get your podcasts so you don’t miss the next one!

iditarod alaska podcast

We would like 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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Podcast Transcript

Click ‘Show transcript’ below to read the transcript from this episode of A Life of Dogs.

A Life of Dogs Podcast – Season Two, Episode Four (S2, E4)
Episode Name: A Climate for Change

Host
Jason Purgason

Guests
Various

Duration
44:06 minutes

Broadcast Date
October 19, 2020

Announcer:    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, the industry leader in professional dog training solutions and premier canine education. Highland Canine Training offers turnkey solutions for everyone from pet owners to law enforcement and military organizations. Learn more at highlandcanine.com.

Man:               It’s hard not to be a fan of the race if you really think about it and understand how it has evolved and how it has sustained itself and what kind of people are engaged. So you felt it yourself up in this community. I’m really honored to be part of it.

Woman:          I recall one of those checkpoints three o’clock, four o’clock in the morning, I don’t know, and checking dogs and clear sky, full moon, and one of the dogs starts howling and then all the dogs start howling. That’s pretty cool.

Man 2:            This is when the Corona virus was starting to pick up and we have no idea that that was going on in the rest of the world, and your emotional state is so up and down because you’re on limited sleep and it’s cold and you’re racing and you’re tired.

Man:               And it was kind of a similar fashion to how I ran the Iditarod. I found out I was going to run the race one week before I ran it.

Woman:          The freedom of just you and dogs traveling through unmarked territory is such almost a spiritual feeling. And I guess I say spiritual feeling because I think it’s a God-given gift to be able to do so. I mean, how many people even could dream of doing that, much less have that opportunity for years. I just feel so blessed, and part of it is I have such great respect for the people of Alaska and you talk about a difficult environment to come into and to pursue your dreams in. This is a difficult environment, and yet together with dogs, they accomplished an amazing amount and I feel like I am involved in living history when I get to share that.

                        It’s early March in Anchorage and it’s bitter cold. Not record-breaking cold, but still well below freezing and snowy. Planes are busy overhead and the city is bustling with traffic. There’s an energy in the air that is as prevalent as the cold, biting wind. Something quite remarkable is about to happen on a scale that no one can really yet understand. From a life of dogs, I’m Jason Purgason, and this is the iconic race of the North.

Martin:           The sled dog sport is what I call a 9,000-year evolution of co-habiting this earth with sled dogs. National Geographic just concluded the carbon dating on some digs, archeological digs in which they prove that sled dogs had been deliberately bred for performance 9,000 years ago. Now we’re not talking domestication. We’re not talking just having the ore wolf become a family member. We’re talking what they described as deliberate sled dog breeding, meaning the nomadic or semi-nomadic people of the Siberian peninsulas, they deliberately bred dogs for their cohabitation, meaning those dogs pulled sledges. The sledges were big and loaded with their earthly belongings. They were not yet riding the sleds because evidence shows that the runners were upturned on both sides of the sled, ergo you couldn’t just ride on it unless you were sitting on it, which is possible.

                        Freighting then started to give way to the survival dogs, meaning people were more sedentary and supplies needed to be delivered to the outposts as far as your imagination. All that, of course, in the Arctic and the difference between horses who only have been utilized for 6,000 years, they have excelled in the warmer climates, whereas dogs because of their physiology have surpassed anything else in the Arctic climate and not being able to perspire is one of the main reasons they have evolved like that. After the freighting millennia, literally hundreds of years of freighting supplies into the most remote places, then of course the gold miners were a little bored in the winter time because the ground is frozen. You can’t do a lot of digging in the ground when the ground is frozen so they started to have dog races to pass the time. Not only driving races, but betting on races and so it became a pastime of the North to follow the greatest dog drivers and the greatest dogs, and that’s where we are now. We just simply have taken that sport of the early 20th century and beyond. We have taken that sport and selectively bred and helped evolution to a super dog that we now simply lump together on the term of Alaskan Husky. Most of your listeners might be familiar with the Siberian Huskies, which is a pure breed. They are the dogs that would be representing the 1920s. They were often direct imports from the Russian peninsula, ergo the Siberian name. The Siberian Huskies were typecast as a pure breed, and because of that, they still have to look like the 1920s.

                        A good example for your listeners would be in the same era, the Model-T Ford happened to be the fastest car. Nobody made a standard for automobiles that’s how they have to look or drive, whereas any dog breed that gets typecast has to stagnate because you’re no longer letting evolution evolve. You’re stagnating, you’re stopping the evolution. And if the clock is your judge, you don’t care whether you’re brown, black, white, or polka-dotted, and that’s where the Alaskan Huskies are. A term I use a lot to describe my dogs cause it’s hard for people to look at them and say, well, what are these dogs? I often say, they are like a term you probably know – Americans. And then people look at you and say, yeah. Of course, we don’t care whether you’re black or white or polka dot. What matters is the intrinsic values, your physiological makeup, your morphology, the way you move down the trail, way, way more important than whether you have blonde hair or polka-dotted hair. So that gives people a bit of an idea of what the Alaskan Huskies, which is 99% of all the competitive teams are made up of those dogs. That’s what those dogs are.

Jason:             That’s Martin Buser, a legend in the dog mushing world and 4-time Iditarod champion. Martin came from Switzerland and has run 36 Iditarods. During our time in Alaska, we had the opportunity to get to know more about Martin and we’ll share more about him later. Each year on the first Saturday of March, an amazing event takes place starting in Anchorage. Many of you know it as the Iditarod Sled Dog Race. We had the fortune of covering the 2020 Iditarod and it was truly an experience like no other. This event and all it entails is indescribable. However, over the next few episodes, I’m going to try to bring you the story of the race, but first we’ll need to rewind several months and learn more about the people who compete in this more than 1000-mile journey, and what it takes to prepare for such an endeavor. We start with Wade Marrs, a 10-time competitor, top-5 finisher and the owner of Stump Jumpin’ Kennels.

Wade:             Well, my mom and uncle used to train dogs with me strapped on the wheelers with a car seat, and then mushing. Ran my first two-dog race when I was 5 years old and running few dogs since I was probably 4 years old. I got my first race dogs when I was about 10 years old. I ran my first race on my own was the Goose Bay 120 and the junior Iditarod in 2007. The name Stump Jumpin’ Kennel didn’t come to fruition until probably around 2010, 2012 but the kennel has been building ever since about 2007. I’ve ran the Iditarod 9 times now. My first one was in 2009. I was 18 years old. Ran it as early as possible, and I took a couple of years off after my first one and started back in 2012 and have ran every race since 2012.

Anna:              My name is Anna Berington and my twin sister and I, Kristy we grew up in Northern Wisconsin, probably about as far north in Wisconsin as you can get. We had pet dogs and cows and horses and chickens and things just on a farm growing up, and our neighbor had sled dogs. So that was our first experience with sled dogs and we’d been fans of Gary Paulson’s books and Disney movies and things like that and the outdoors. So that’s how we first got our feet wet, I guess, with sled dogs being able to run and work with our neighbor who had sprint racing dogs, which was quite a bit different than what we do now.

Kristy:             This is Kristy. I first moved up here in 2007 to kind of scout it out and then shortly after that, we both moved up here. When we were kids, we were involved in it as much as we could be, and when we graduated, we both joined the Army National Guard and did some school and took a small break from it, but felt that yearning to go back to it. And after our commitments with school and the military, we found ourselves in California working at a Sundog tour place, which eventually brought us to Alaska to look for dogs to purchase for that touring outfit. And we met Iditarod Campion Dean Osmar and he was looking for a kennel help. They’re called handlers when you work for a kennel doing basic chores and exercising the dogs, so he offered us a job right then and there and we’ve been up here ever since. At the time, we were living in a tent in the Sierra Nevada mountains, so we packed everything up on our backs and have called Alaska home ever since. Got a one-way ticket.

Anna:              This is Anna. I’ve run 8 Iditarods and Christie has run 10 Iditarods, and then she’s also done the Yukon Quest, which is another 1000-mile race that gets started February 1st, but we’re not in that one this year, but it’s in the back of our minds for the coming next season.

Jason:             That was Kristy and Anna Berington, identical twin sisters who own Seeing Double Sled Dog Racing, a kennel with over 50 dogs. Kristy has been running the Iditarod since 2010 and Anna since 2012. Up next, we hear from Kaci Murringer, a native of Michigan and one of several 2020 rookie Iditarod mushers that we spoke with.

Kaci:                Where I grew up in Michigan, they have a dog sled race called the UP 200, and the trail goes right behind my old house where I grew up in when I was a kid. Always loved dogs, always love winter. And one year I just said, Mom, Dad, this looks fun. And they found a musher in the area and I went and tried it out. Did my first race when I was 7 years old. Two-dog, I think it was like a mile or so; a little fun race. And the guy said, all right Kaci, what you have got to know is don’t let go of the dog sled, and I thought, well, why would that be an issue? I’ll stand up straight and sure enough, flipped over and got dragged for about half of it and never let go. And the guy came out, got me right-side up said, good job and I went on to finish the race. Come a long way since then.

Jason:             So you did half the race flipped over?

Kaci:                I think so, yeah. Or at least pretty close to that. I couldn’t quite figure out how to use my feet to pop up, but we’re good now if that happened. And then two years later, I got my kennel started with my first few sled dogs and took off from there. And now 20 years later, I believe we’re up here signed up for our rookie Iditarod, so it was good to finally be coming full circle.

Jason:             This annual race, often termed the Superbowl of Alaska, requires an enormous amount of training and preparation. For many mushers, the work to prepare for next year’s race begins as soon as this year’s race is over. Here’s Wade Marrs again.

Wade:             Yeah, there’s definitely a lot of work. So we’ll probably the biggest work dubs are the training of the dogs obviously. We’ll train them between 20 and 100 miles a day. They’ll put on about 2000 to 3000 miles of training runs before the race ever starts. And then also starting the food drops for the race itself. We’ll send out about 2000 pounds of cut up meat and kibble and stuff like that for the dogs to eat along the trail so that’s a lot of work too. I almost immediately put in my order for the booties. Dogs all wear booties on their feet. We’ll send about 3000 booties out on the trail for the dogs to use, so we’ll order those up right away and get those matched together and bagged and ready for next year and try to get done as far ahead as possible so when training season comes, we can focus solely on training as much as possible.

Anna:              Oh yeah, there’s about 20 checkpoints along the trail that we’ll send gear to, and you send out about anywhere between 2,000 to 2,500 pounds of stuff to the checkpoints, and the stuff is dog food – a lot of dog food – dog booties, runner plastic, extra socks and gloves for the people, people food, more dog food, gloves, socks, batteries, other gear for the dogs. We send out dog blankets and the dogs will wear; besides the booties, they wear coats. They have the little powder skirt for the coat. They have these sleeves that they sometimes wear and we send out massage liniments and so it’s all those things. That stuff is sent out about two weeks before the race starts, so you have to have somewhat of a plan of where you want these things, and certain parts of the race have a reputation of being extra cold, extra bad weather or things like that, and you know there’s certain long runs that you need to prepare for where you’re going to camp out, where you’re going to want to extra, extra things. So you sit down and you plan all that out and leading up to it is a lot of meat cutting. We cut a lot of meat. So we buy all our meat in about 50 pounds blocks, and we cut that into small pieces about the size of a loaf of bread. I compare everything to people food. A slice of bread, and the snacks are about the size of a Snickers bar. Just different kinds of meat. We send out fish, beef fat, beef, chicken, tripe, horse, lamb, lots of chicken skin, beaver, lots of different food.

Wade:             I do scheduling for the race so I can stick to the schedule on the trail and training and stuff. So I’ll start writing that as soon as I finish the Iditarod while it’s still fresh in my brain. I’ll jot down a schedule for the next year’s race while I’m remembering all the different things that I thought of out on the trail. Usually we replace our sled every year and get that ready, so we have to build a new sled.

Kaci:                Yeah. I literally just bought all the pieces today when I was in town so we’re going to start building that here this evening and get it ready for Iditarod. Basically, going to model his exact sled design, and actually do a race with it. It was awesome. Handled really nicely so I had to buy the sled runners from a specialty store up in Fairbanks, Alaska that sells them. And then I went to a welding place and bought aluminum stanchions and the framework for my sled. And then I had to go to a plastics place to get things like the handlebar and the brush bow and the sled basket bottom that I am going to put my gear on top of that will support it. A few different places, but thankfully Matthew’s a handy man. We’re going to pretty much custom build all of our parts and pieces to save a lot of money because typically a sled, if you were going to buy it outright, it’s usually around $3,000 up to $6,000 sometimes, but we’re probably going to build mine for $1,000, maybe $1,500.

Anna:              Oh yeah. We did build our sleds and have been maintaining them since. Sometimes we’ll get a little help from the flood builders around here to update some things, but when you build your sled, it’s a lot easier to fix it if you bust it out on the trail, so that’s good knowledge to have and we have to build all our dog houses. We mix liniments and massage oils for the dogs, so those are the things we make. We’ve made special treats for the dogs before and my mother-in-law can sew anything, so she’s really great about doing stuff for our dog coats and the sled bags and the sleeves and everything else that the dog wears. But we do order all our booties from our favorite local mushing supplies store that has them because we use so many. It just takes so long for an individual to make 4,000 booties, and that’s just for Iditarod. We do a lot of middle-distance races and training that we use booties in. We wash them and reuse them, but they eventually wear out.

Jason:             In addition to preparing food, equipment and supplies for the race, it’s important to keep in mind that there’s lots of work that goes into training and caring for the top athletes that will actually move the sled. Teams also have other hurdles to conquer before entering the Iditarod. We’ll learn about all this and more when we return, so stay with us.

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Martin:           Because we know the involvement, the commitment the year round daily, not only time and financial-wise, but lifestyle wise commitment that it takes, we’re very, very cautious in not having people fall into that lightly because it’s such a huge commitment. Anytime you work with living things, you have to be there all the time. Then if we cannot talk them out of it, of course I do my absolute best to be a good teacher, a good mentor, a good coach.

Matthew:       It’s kind of a weird role reversal. I never really thought that I would be a mentor, so it’s flattering to have if she called me that cause my buddy Martin Buser who is like the Dale Earnhardt of our sport up here is Martin Buser. He’s a four-time champion. He’s in the Hall of Fame and he taught me and now I’m at a point where I can take his teachings and then pass them on to the next generation, which is kind of cool. She’s an awesome dog musher. She’s very patient with them, very loving with them. She is a hard, hard worker. I’ve never heard her complain once. She has never asked for a day off. I mean, if you own a business, that’s the type of employee you want. Someone who’s ready to go to work every day and this is what she loves to do and she’s been dreaming of it since she was little, so I’m really happy to be able to provide her the dogs to go down the trail.

Kaci:                It might sound like a common-sense thing, but we’re always just saying go have fun. If things get rough, don’t let it get you down. Just look at your dogs and how amazing they are, and just keep moving on.

Jason:             This commitment, and more importantly this positive attitude, is vital to making it through the Iditarod. A lot of work goes into raising and training these extreme canine athletes. We return to Wade to give us an idea of what this is like.

Wade:             The dogs we use are called the Alaskan Huskies, which are just a fancy word for a mutt. They’re just mixed bred dogs. Back in the day, they took the more tough fluffy Siberian type of dog that is built for the outdoor elements and they mixed those with different kinds of hounds like Greyhound, Wilkies, Pointers, dogs like this. And eventually it came down to a nice, even breed between them to where we have the high energy and high attitude of the hound, but we still have the toughness and the endurance of the Husky so they can handle the outdoor conditions and they can travel much faster. Some people today still use the traditional purebred Siberian dogs. Those guys are usually three to four days slower than the Alaskan Huskies, so the mixed breeds came out a lot better. They have great health and longevity. So they’ll start training for their first time at 6 months old. That’s only about half mile to a mile run at a time. With some older dogs, they’ll start coming into shorter races, 150, 200-mile races as yearlings – year and a half old. Two-year olds, they’re very solid for middle distance racing. Every once in a while, but rarely a two-year-old will make the race team for the Iditarod. We try to start them mostly in the competitive side of things at three years old, because that’s when they’re more fully developed physically, and then they retire usually between 8 and 12 years old, which is pretty long working life for the dogs. On average, they live till about 17 years, I would say.

Anna:              We have 40 dogs that are in training and some of those are our younger dogs that are essentially trying out for the team and experiencing all their first races and just getting a grasp. They’re like a freshman/JV dog, but they’re also our bench warmers in case of somebody who’s ill or a female comes into heat and causes a huge distraction on the team. We opt to leave those ones at home in a case like that, so they’re training for it, but definitely not on the dream team yet. Next year they will be prime time. It’ll be exciting to put those guys on the varsity teams. When it comes down to picking each of us our top 14 dogs, that’s going to be hard to only pick 14 because we’ve got a lot of really nice dogs to work with.

Jason:             Yeah. That was my next question. How hard is it to get it down to the 14, and when is the final decision made? How do you approach that?

Anna:              It’s a slow process, but Iditarod has a lot of qualifications for the dogs to even run the race. The first thing they go through is blood work and an EKG so you can submit 24 dogs for that whole process. And then a week after that, you have to submit 20 dogs for a physical health check so they force you to slowly whittle that number down.

Wade:             I guess the process starts as puppies and the number one thing with puppies is socialization, making sure that the puppies love interacting with people and are good interacting with people and interacting with other dogs and stuff like that. So that’s where our process begins and those two things are very important. We’ll have veterinarians on the trail and volunteers and stuff that they’re gonna be interacting with constantly. A lot of the kids from the villages come running out to say hi to the dogs, so that’s the number one thing that we look for in the dogs early on is just human and other dog interactions. And then as they get older and start running on the team, next attribute that we look for is attitude. Attitudes are very important for ones that just want to do it and love to do it. Very rarely these days, but every once in a while, we’ll find one that just is not interested in running, and usually those guys become a house potato somewhere or a couch potato somewhere. But most of the dogs these days just absolutely thrive on running in the team so that’s the next thing we look for as we’re training them as young dogs is just their attitude and their love for doing it. As they get older and start leaning towards making the race team, a little bit more comes into play. Athleticism – the dogs have to be able to run at high speeds, 17 to 20 miles an hour, and then they have to be able to continuously move smoothly at 10, 11 miles an hour for long, long distances, and so we look for that kind of thing with the athleticism and the endurance on the dogs.

                        Appetite is a huge thing for our team because on the race they’re eating 10,000 to 12,000 calories a day, so they have to just really love to eat and put food down very quickly, and so those are some of the things we look for. Obviously make sure that the dogs are hardy and built well, have a smooth gait. That way they don’t get sore wrists or anything like that. If the dogs are getting sore, then they maybe can’t handle the speeds we are going or something like that. So if the dog doesn’t fit into the race team from the B team and usually they’re just a little bit different style than what we prefer in our team, a lot of us mushers will sell or trade each other dogs that might fit better with their team versus our team, and that works out really good because the dogs still get to do what they love. And they get to a place where they fit in good and are going to perform well and excel.

                        So that’s kind of the processes going through from puppies into race team, and then once they’re ready to finish with the race team, you can kind of tell by both their attitudes again and their eating habits and also their performance on the trail. So if they’re starting to slow down a little bit on the runs, then obviously they may be getting a little bit too old to keep up with the pace, or if they’re stopping eating, then maybe they’re getting too much exercise and it’s taking their interest off of food, or obviously if they’re acting pouty or sad that they have to run, then maybe it’s a little bit past their time or something along those lines. You can see it in the dogs very well that they’re ready to end their career or be done running, but you can tell when they’re ready to go to. Some of the old dogs, their attitude never changes, but you can see it in the performance.

Wade:             There’s 18 of them that are training on my main race team, and most likely I’ll start with 14 of those 18. And then we have about 14 that are training on a B-team and most of those guys are one and two-year olds and a couple of older dogs that don’t need the harder training as a race team does. So a couple of those older dogs might come back into the team for Iditarod, but we have a second driver this year who’s training up that second team and he’ll be running them in a couple middle distance races getting qualified for Iditarod next year. We start pretty late in August. We start just kind of like you would as a human athlete. We start very lightly in August with like 3 mile runs and stuff like that, and slowly build them up with 5 and 10 until eventually we’re training between 20 and 100 miles a day. In training, we’ll do camp outs 200, 300-mile camp outs and kind of simulate our race and stuff like that through those camps. In the summertime when their time off is, we give them between a month and two of just relaxation and recovery time to make sure that they all come back 100 percent from anything, and then we start free running them loose and running them in the swamps and playing in the marsh. They love running down in the water and cooling off on hot summer days, so we’ll do a lot of that kind of training with them in the off season.

Jason:             As I found out, entering the Iditarod Sled Dog Race is far more involved than just signing up and showing up on the day with a team of dogs. Each participant must run a number of shorter races prior to the Iditarod in order to qualify for the race.

Anna:              Yeah as a start, 750 racing miles, so they ask you to do two 300-mile races, at least that distance. So, for myself that was the Copper Basin 300 and the Kobuk 440 race, and you need to have one race of at least 150 miles so I did the Goose Bay 150. But not only do you have to finish all those races, you have to have race judge and race ushering approval saying that, yes, you rode on a trail and you were able to take care of your dog and yourself out there in the wilderness of Alaska, just to make sure when you get on the actual Iditarod trail, you’re prepared and you know what you’re doing out there. So, it is a process, but they do it for very good reason.

Wade:             So before you run the Iditarod for your first time, you have to qualify and you have to run 750 miles of qualifying races, so two 300 mile races and 150 mile race or 200, and those races take place anywhere from December to April all over the state. There’s quite a few of them in the lower 48 and in Canada as well that people use for qualifiers. Once you run the Iditarod, you’re permanently qualified once you finish unless there’s a special committee that can review you and say you need to requalify under certain conditions. But once you’re competing in and finishing the Iditarod, you’re permanently qualified, but each year we will compete in other races sometimes for purse money and sometimes just for fun, and the dogs enjoy getting around other teams and going to new places so we’ll sign up for a couple other races every year, just for those experiences.

Jason:             I had the fortune to spend months getting to know more about what the Iditarod Sled Dog Race was all about. From the mushers to the dogs, all the volunteers and everyone else that makes this event happen, it truly is a massive undertaking. One odd fact that demonstrates this is that crews often spend an incredible amount of time hauling in dump truck loads of snow to cover 4th Avenue and the other streets of Anchorage to ensure that the ceremonial start takes place.

Kaci:                Nope, that’s real. They’ll haul dump truckloads of snow a few days before the race or they’re making it so we can run through downtown Anchorage and other year when it was such low snow, they had it hauled in by rail car from Fairbanks because they needed to do some sort of ceremonial start here in Anchorage. That’s one of their preparations for Saturday, that day is to get something for us to run on in town. Like where we live, there’s more sled dogs than people, and we don’t have Super Bowl or professional teams for anything so it gives people in the state something to follow and rally around and it’s a really fun time of year. The frivolity that happens with the sprint racing and Iditarod. It’s just a great time. There’s so many races up here to do that you can travel from where we’re at within 360 miles, you can get to almost every single race that Alaska holds, and then if you’re in the Midwest, if you want to go all the way out to Montana or to Colorado or any place like that that has a race, it seems like more of a trek and there are just so many other mushers around here that it is a community and it has a very historic hold out here that there’s a lot of old timers that can tell you how it was and they will help you out with things and see all these trails and places. It feels like the place to be if you want to professionally pursue dog mushing.

Jason:             It’s the Superbowl of Alaska.

Anna:              It is, yeah.

Jason:             This race is a spectacular event to experience, even as a spectator. As a competitor, even more so. Kaci, the rookie explains, and she also expresses her desire to become part of an elite club.

Kaci:                Yeah. Every rookie musher that finishes Iditarod, they give you a belt buckle and you become part of the Iditarod Finishers club. It’s a pretty elite club. There are actually more people that have been the top of Mount Everest than have finished this Sled Dog Race, so I’m looking forward to being a part of that as well.

Jason:             Being a musher and competing in the Iditarod is incredibly time consuming, expensive and demanding. What has been covered in this episode is only a fraction of the work and commitment it takes. So, some may ask why do they do it? The answer is pretty simple, actually. It’s for the love of the dogs and to continue to allow these dogs to do what they love. When the Iditarod is mentioned, most people immediately conjure up images of Balto or Togo, and think of the serum run that saved the people of Nome in 1925. But as Kaci explains, the race has more to do with Joe Redington, Senior and a commitment to save the Alaskan sled dog.

Kaci:                And then we get a lot of misconceptions too about Iditarod and the connection to the serum and people always go, why didn’t you talk about that? What about Balto and all this? The Iditarod was not actually created for that reason. A guy by the name of Joe Redington, Senior, he’s the father of the Iditarod is what they called him. He noticed back in the 1960s that the machines, the snow machines were actually replacing the sled dogs up here for transportation. He didn’t like the thought of that at all, so he came up with the Iditarod Sled Dog Race to keep those sled dogs around and keep that traditional alive up here in Alaska. Today, actually dogsledding is the official state sport up here so the Iditarod while it does cover part of that serum trail from Ruby to Nome, it wasn’t actually created to commemorate that run at all.

Jason:             I want to thank you for joining us for our first episode covering the Iditarod Sled Dog Race and how that you’ll subscribe to hear our upcoming episodes that guarantee to deliver some spectacular stories from the trail.

Marcus:          They want to kill the Iditarod and they’re experts at killing. There’s no question about it.

Jason:             In our next episode, learn about the controversy surrounding the race and what it takes to care for these special canine athletes. Until then, we leave you with Redington’s Run by Hobo Jim Varsos.

                        [Hobo Jim Varsos singing Redington’s Run; 41:42 to 44:00]

 

A Climate for Change

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.

bumblebee detection

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.

green sea turtle

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.

koala conservation

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.

Royal Canin

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Highland Canine Training, LLC

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Podcast Transcript

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

Host
Jason Purgason

Guests
Jacqueline Staab; Christian Fritz; Dr. Romane Cristescu

Duration
57:01 minutes

Broadcast Date
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

 

 

 

Dead Dog Beach

Yabucoa is a small town located in the southeastern part of the island of Puerto Rico.  Yabucoa was known to be a place on the island where unwanted dogs were discarded.  As such, a fairly remote beach with beautiful white sand and towering palm trees became known as “Dead Dog Beach”.  For years this beach was populated with unwanted dogs, many of them mothers with litters of puppies.  Rescuers and others visited the beach daily to check on the dogs, feed them and give them water.  In September, 2017, Hurricane Maria, a powerful category 4 storm, struck Puerto Rico. As a result, dead dog beach was changed forever.

 

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Cautious Closure

When people are missing, often dog teams are called in to locate them.  At times, Human Remains Detection dogs or cadaver dogs are utilized to recover the deceased body of a missing individual.  These dog teams are often used by law enforcement to successfully prosecute cases and to provide evidence that would otherwise be overlooked.  They are also used in “cold cases” to find bodies that have been missing for years and even decades.  These dog teams take a special kind of dog and an even more special type of person to be successful.  

 

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Thirty-One Kilo

Dogs have been officially serving as soldiers in the United States military since World War I. Known as (MWDs) or military working dogs they are trained for a variety of highly specialized tasks and actively contribute to U.S. combat operations. There are about 2,500 war dogs in service today, with about 700 serving at any given time overseas Military working dogs are versatile, highly mobile and have been proven to save the lives of US soldiers in combat.

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The Fearless Ones

Africa is known to be the home to the world’s most magnificent wildlife. Endangered animals are slaughtered so that a single body part, like tusks, pelt, or bones, can be sold illegally for massive amounts of money. For example, Rhinoceros horn is so valuable and sought after that it sells for nearly $30,000 a pound. Pangolins, the most trafficked animal in the world, sell for $1000 in parts of Asia.  Deterring this illegal poaching is a massive undertaking and one group is training dog teams to combat poachers in the bush.

 

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Catching a Flight

It’s a fairly common occurrence for a bird and a plane to collide.  Recently, a Japan airlines flight had to make an emergency landing due to a bird strike, while another commercial plane was forced to make an emergency return to Cardiff Airport in Wales after a bird hit an engine.  Although rare, dogs trained to deter these incidents can be extremely beneficial.

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One Man’s Trash…

If you look up transformation in a dictionary, one definition you will find is “a metamorphosis during the life cycle of an animal”.  We all go through changes in life, but specifically, what we are talking about is metamorphosis.  A drastic and complete “change of the form or nature of a thing or person into a completely different one.”

 

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