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Canmore canine conservationist sniffs out invasive species

“Mussels are a hugely important issue, but they’re kind of not sexy, and the dogs bring the wow factor.”

BOW VALLEY – From detection of hard-to-find invasive mussels and harmful weeds to scat of destructive wild boar, Alberta’s conservation K9 unit has the eyes – and nose – for missions.

Hilo, an affable black lab crossed with a golden retriever who lives with his handler in Canmore, sniffs out boats and lakeshores for dreaded freshwater zebra and quagga mussels in a bid to keep the aquatic invasive species at bay in Alberta.

“We’re focused strictly on conservation work and dogs are really great at sniffing things out,” said Cindy Sawchuk, who is Hilo’s handler and lead of the conservation K9 unit for Alberta Environment and Protected Areas.

“A dog’s nose is actually the best chemical sensor the world has ever known. We as humans are looking with our eyes and the dogs are completing the full picture by using their noses.”

Alberta’s conservation K9 unit was the first of its kind in Canada, established in 2015. Joining Hilo and Sawchuk are K9 Seuss with handler Hannah McKenzie and K9 Diesel with Heather McCubbin.

At watercraft inspection stations on major highways coming into Alberta from eastern provinces and from Montana, the dogs are asked to pinpoint the exact location of an odour they have been trained to detect – mussels.

Once the dogs catch the scent, they sit and wait for confirmation from their handler. Their reward or paycheque for a successful detection is a special toy – the only time they are allowed to play with it.

“They’re having fun and work for them is a big game, it’s a big party,” said Sawchuk.

“We went through this process where we taught the dogs if they smell this, then they sit and they will get a special toy."

Zebra and quagga mussels are found throughout Ontario, Quebec, and Manitoba. Native to the Black Sea region in south-eastern Europe, they arrived in the Great Lakes through discharge of contaminated cargo ship ballast water in 1986 and have since spread throughout North America.

They have taken over aquatic ecosystems and clogged pipes that deliver water to communities, power plants and sewage treatment facilities.

If invasive mussels reached Alberta’s lakes and rivers, it is estimated an infestation could cost Alberta $75 million per year and they would be nearly impossible to eradicate.

At least 15 instances of invasive mussels have been found on boats this season in Alberta and close to 200 since Alberta’s conservation K9 program was launched in 2015.

“We’ve had four mussel-foul boats attempting to enter Alberta in the last two weeks alone,” said Sawchuk. “All four of those watercraft came from eastern Canada.”

Searching lakes is also part of Alberta’s early detection rapid response plan for invasive mussels. Training exercises have taken place in Texas, Montana and Ontario.

Recently, Hilo and Sawchuk were called upon by Parks Canada to search Lake Minnewanka, Two Jack Lake, Lake Louise and Moraine Lake.

“It was all part of routine monitoring, just seeing if the dogs pick up the odour,” Sawchuk said.

“He didn’t find anything, and I am happy to say he did not have a change of behaviour like showing us some kind of special interest or cues.”

Dogs and handlers receive training and mentorship from Working Dogs for Conservation, a non-profit organization based in the United States that supports and trains conservation detection dogs and puts them to work protecting wildlife and wild places.

Aimee Hurt, the organization’s co-founder, said dogs can detect weeds before they break the surface, animals that live below ground, or organisms invisible to the human eye, whether diseases or microscopic larvae.

Building upon techniques from narcotics detection, cadaver detection, and search and rescue, she said the organization pioneered ways to use dogs’ extraordinary sense of smell for conservation.

“It’s really a fundamental way of shifting the paradigm,” said Hurt, who is based in Missoula, Montana.

“This is an entirely additional tool in looking for these things that are inherently hard to find.”

In detection tests in an initial joint Montana-Alberta project to sniff out invasive mussels, Hurt said dogs identified 100 per cent of the watercraft containing mussels, while human inspectors found only 75 per cent.

Because dogs are effective, efficient, and have strong public appeal, she said they are proving to be great ambassadors for the project and help facilitate the education and outreach that is an integral part of prevention.

“Everybody loves dogs and they are really captivating,” said Hurt.

“Mussels are a hugely important issue, but they’re kind of not sexy, and the dogs bring the 'wow factor.'”

Because of their skills in detecting invasive mussels, Alberta’s conservation K9’s mission was expanded to include searches for invasive weeds and wild boar scat in the province.

Feral boar populations, which continually reproduce since some escaped from livestock operations in the 1980s and early 1990s, not only damage property and agricultural crops, but can alter the ecosystem.

Needing to keep cool, their wallowing can contaminate water supplies, lead to erosion and destroy fish habitat.

“We're not looking for the boars, we're looking for evidence of them,” said Sawchuk.

“If farmers have noticed some rooting or some crop damage or whatnot, and they're not sure, we can bring the dogs up to have a look around and see what's there.”

Additionally, the K9 team is also successful in detecting a hard-to-find invasive weed, thesium arvense, in Fish Creek Provincial Park, which first mysteriously showed up in 2001. Native to Europe and Asia, the weed feeds off other plants and kills them.

“It’s amazing the dogs can actually pick out one weed in a field with hundreds of other plants, and wind and gophers and deer and all kinds of other distractions,” said Sawchuk.

“For the dogs, it’s a big fun game and they love doing it.”

For Hurt, the growing success of the Wild Dogs for Conservation program is heart-warming.

The organization was the first to train dogs to detect wide-ranging carnivores in a connectivity project in Idaho and Montana, helping track black bears, mountain lions and wolves so they could be radio-collared for research purposes.

Further afield, dogs trained by the group are used in anti-trafficking programs, beginning in Zambia’s Luangwa Valley.

Hurt said while monitoring lion, cheetah, and wild dogs, they saw the victims of poaching firsthand: elephants shot for ivory, rhinos killed for their horns, and countless animals caught in vicious snares.

“We knew our dogs could help,” she said, noting tracking was added to the dogs’ repertoire so dogs can locate poachers.

From Luangwa, the program was expanded to the Malawi border, where contraband is often smuggled across this route, and then to Tanzania where dogs work to protect the wildlife of the Serengeti.

Closer to home, one of the biggest success stories for Hurt is the dogs’ work to protect the endangered kit fox in San Joaquin, California.

“The dogs were finding areas that the foxes used heavily, especially highly-used habitats,” she said. “Our surveys leveraged a $2 million land acquisition to protect kit fox habitat.”

The overall success of the programs, including Alberta’s conservation K9 team, is largely due to the bond between a handler and a dog, which is developed through playing, spending time together and working together.

Sawchuk and Hilo have been a team for the past seven years. When not busy working, Hilo accompanies his handler to the Canmore provincial building where he chills out in the off-season.

“We’re together all the time. These dogs live with us day in and day out. They're integrated into our homes and our families and friends,” she said.

“That’s what builds trust so that if he's trying to tell me something, then I can kind of understand his language because we live together.”

Sawchuk said fewer than one in 1,000 dogs has what it takes to do this conservation work, adding many are found in shelters because they don’t make good family pets.

“The qualities they’re looking for are really high-drive, high energy, with the ability to remain focused,” she said.

“These dogs are also obsessed with toys and balls, so I don't have these kinds of toys lying around my house, otherwise they would all be destroyed.”

As for Hilo, now nine years old, he was in guide dog school for the blind in San Rafael, California, before switching careers.

“They determined pretty early into his puppy year that he wasn't maybe cut out for that role and so we consider him a career change dog,” Sawchuk said.

“Now he’s one of the great ambassadors to our program.”