Conservation Dogs
Jill Rennicke, Alumni Coordinator

“We do it to save the world,” says Kayla Fratt gazing down at her dog Barley. “They do it for the love of a ball.” 

CS1 alum Kayla Fratt, the Communications and Outreach Coordinator for Working Dogs for Conservation out of Missoula, Montana, recently returned to Conserve with her dog Barley to give a presentation to students on the growing role of dogs in conservation.

Founded in 2000 by a small group of conservationists and ecologists, Working Dogs for Conservation is harnessing the amazing senses and energy of canines to assist with all sorts of conservation projects around the world. “Let’s say you’re a biologist tasked with understanding the hormone fluctuations in fishers over a year,” Fratt says, “or a ranger in the Serengeti tasked with tracking down poachers after a rhino was killed, or even a landowner attempting to eradicate noxious weeds from your fields. How would you do that?” Increasingly, the answer, she says, is “with the help of a trained conservation dog.”

Armed with a sense of smell many times greater than that of humans, almost endless energy, and a desire to please their handlers, conservation dogs are doing all of that and more including detection of brown trout versus rainbow trout in Montana streams, checking boats for invasive zebra mussels, scanning firewood piles for emerald ash borer, and non-evasively detecting the presence of endangered black-footed ferrets in wild landscapes. “Many of us love dogs,” Kayla says, “but we don’t work with these dogs just because we love them. We do it because they’re amazing field partners.” 

Study after study is proving the effectiveness of well-trained dogs for conservation work. They are nine times more likely than camera traps to identify the presence of bobcats or bears. A study with turtles that pitted dogs against human searchers found that the canines discovered 39 times more turtles than their human counterparts did in the same period. This is not surprising since a well-trained dog can cover 16 times more search area than trained human searchers over the same period. “They are cheaper, have less bias towards certain samples, can search multiple targets at once,” says Kayla, “and, of course, have crowd appeal.”

To prove the last point, Kayla brought along her conservation dog, Barley, a five-year-old bundle of energy and “crowd appeal” whom Kayla obtained from a shelter at 3.5 years of age. Barley has all the criteria of a good conservation dog – he is ball-crazy, enjoys the search, is intently focused on his handler, and seems to have endless energy. After a short lecture inside, Kayla took the students outside where she had hidden samples of black-footed ferret scat around campus. They were first-hand witnesses to Barley’s energy, enthusiasm, and great nose as he quickly tracked down the samples. Kayla mentioned, “Barley is also trained to search red fox, zebra mussels, and quagga mussels.” Amazingly, Barley still had enough energy for a rousing game of “fetch” with the students once the exercise was completed.

To find out more about Kayla and Barley’s work at Working Dogs for Conservation, follow them on Facebook, or Instagram at @workingdogsforconservation, or visit their website at www.wd4c.org.

Conservation Dogs
Conservation Dogs

Photos contributed Jeff Rennicke and Kayla Fratt