Thursday, September 24, 2015

4 Reasons You Should Be Glad Dogs Love to Sniff Poop

Dogs have amazing noses. They sniff everything--especially, it seems, things that most of us humans find disgusting--such as rotting corpses and poop. They revel in the symphony of smells, appreciating every nuance, identifying every "note" of the complex mix of aromas with a precision far beyond the skill of any master perfumer.
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Mmmm...Heart notes of skatole, with subtle undertones of flatulatus!
Lucky for us that they do!

Here are some of the reasons the world should be glad that dogs like excrement:

1. Dogs can count grizzly bears at a fraction of the usual cost.

In 1999, Sam Wasser, a scientist at the University of Washington wanted to learn how human activities were affecting bears in the Canadian Rockies. He thought that dogs sniffing out bear scat might be able to do a better job than radio-telemetry and hair-snag stations.
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A Canadian Grizzly
Despite skepticism from most biologist, Wasser's dogs proved him right. The dogs' noses found 4 times more grizzly bears in each square mile of the project than hair-snag stations did. Nineteen bears who had been trapped and collared provided lots of information, too--but after 3 years, showed the same bear distribution as the dogs had found. Moreover, the radio collaring cost a million dollars. Wasser's dogs cost $30,000.
Grizzly Being Collared

Another downside to radio collars-- the trapping killed two grizzly bears and badly injured another. "High stakes for a population of only 100 threatened animals,"*

Analysis of the dog-nose data showed evidence of grizzly bear poaching.. The scientists recommended keeping off-road vehicles out of remote areas as much as possible so the poachers would find it harder to get in.
Feeding them causes all sorts of problems
They also concluded that tourists in Jasper National Park were probably feeding the black bears (but not grizzlies)--to the detriment of the bears' health. They recommended more stringent monitoring of tourist behavior in the park.
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Conservation Canines
Wasser's bear study was the beginning of Conservation Canines, Here's another project his poop-sniffing dogs dogs are currently working on:

2. Dogs can monitor whale populations without traumatizing the whales.

As of July 1, 2015, only 81 killer whales were resident in the waters of Washington state and Alaska. No babies were born last year, and 2 whales died. In 1997, 97 killer whales made these waters their home. The decline has scientists worried. In order to find out what was happening to the whales, they need whale poop and they need to get it without traumatizing the whales. 

Who'd have thought that dogs would be good candidates for such a job?
Black labrador dog leaning over the bow of the motor boat,
Tucker on a Whale Hunting Expedition

Tucker, a black lab (who, ironically, is afraid of water), started his training by sniffing out whale poop on land. Then the trainer floated the poop on a styrofoam platform and took Tucker out in a canoe to find it. Now Tucker can smell whale poop over a mile away from the research boat. No styrofoam required, since luckily for the study, whale poop floats--at least for a while..
Killer Whales in Puget Sound
Early indications are that the whales aren't getting enough to eat, probably because their favorite food, Chinook salmon, is also in decline. Another likely culprit--whale-watching boats.

The big question: Can the researchers find a way to bring the whale numbers back up to a healthy level? If they do, dogs like Tucker will have been key to their success.

I'd need an entire book (probably several) to name all the ways that poop-sniffing dogs are helping wildlife and the environment.

They're also helping human beings directly.

3. Dogs can detect colon cancer more accurately than any standard test.

Colon cancer is the third most common cancer other than skin cancers. In 2015, over 93,000 people are expected to learn that they have it, and 700 are expected to die from it. A trained dog who sniffs your poop can detect it with 95% accuracy.  

    Image result for canine cancer sniffers
    A medical detection dog at work

That's way more accurate than a colonscopy (60% - 70% accuracy). Another bonus. You don't have to drink a gallon of nauseating liquid the day before and you don't have to have anything stuck up your rear end! Unfortunately, canine cancer detectives aren't going to be checking your samples anytime soon. but scientists hope to isolate the exact molecules the dogs are sniffing and use them to come up with a more accurate screening test of their own.

Dogs can detect many (maybe most or all) human cancers by sniffing breath and various body fluids They provide an exciting avenue for new research into this terrible disease.

4. Poop-sniffing dog projects are saving lots of dogs who would otherwise be killed.

Almost all the dogs who sniff poop for a living came from shelters.
These three were at-risk shelter dogs
They got there because they were hyper-dogs--obsessive, way too energetic to settle down comfortably in a family, and so ball-crazy that they drove their owners nuts.
They probably weren't going to leave the shelter alive.

But those are the exact traits needed for some kinds of working dogs, and especially for poop-sniffing conservation dogs. They must be able to endure harsh conditions and difficult terrain and still stay focused on the job at hand.
Looking for caribou, moose, and wolves in Alberta
Dogs who sniff poop are helping wildlife and our environment all over the world. They're helping manage human disease. And they're helping provide a second chance and a meaningful life for many dogs who otherwise probably wouldn't make it.

We should all be glad that dogs like to sniff poop.

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