A few years ago in Poughkeepsie, New York, my fiancé, Erin and I went to a day of talks about Africa. One of the stars of the talks was an Anatolian Shepherd. The shepherd was a tall, relaxed dog that seemed contented to stand as guests passed by to pet her. As incredible as it sounds, people actually train Anatolian Shepherds to protect goats, sheep and other livestock from that iconic African predator: the cheetah. A dog facing down a cheetah seems less far-fetched if you actually meet an Anatolian shepherd, as they are enormous dogs that stand as high as an adult man’s hip. The dogs are large in frame too, not tall and delicate like greyhounds but closer to Saint Bernards. It’s not without precedent to have dogs defend livestock from enormous predators, either.
In David Quammen’s book The Monster of God, he visits shepherds in Romania that protect their herds from Eurasian brown bears Ursus arctos (to be clear, that’s the same species as the North American grizzly). The name Shepherd in a dog breed gives the vital clue that these dogs were indeed bred to protect sheep from predators. The key for Anatolian Shepherds seems to be that the dogs are raised with the livestock and grow up thinking of the sheep or goats or whatever other animals are part of the same pack as them. Just as a dog will defend a human as part of her extended family, so will an Anatolian Shepherd raised with livestock.
The advantage of dogs for the Cheetahs is that, in most cases, the Cheetah is scared off with no great harm to the big cat. If a dog can protect a flock of sheep or a herd of goats, then there’s no need to buy a gun or to kill cheetahs preemptively. It’s the same story with Quammen’s bears, although in that case the dogs have been there for a long time and are used along with other deterrents, such as guns. With Anatolian Shepherds, the dogs were purposefully brought to Africa by The Cheetah Fund and others as a way for livestock and cheetahs to coexist.
Dogs in many jobs are prized for their noses. Dogs are used in airport and border security to detect drugs or explosives. So it’s no surprise that dog noses can also be used for conservation.
Working Dogs for Conservation and similar organizations train dogs to sniff for things like wildlife scat. The dogs that the organization uses are all rescued from shelters before being trained. As they explain on their website:
“Humans have approximately 5 million scent receptors in our noses; dogs can have upwards of 220 million, which is why they can detect a single teaspoon of sugar in a million gallons of water. Where we experience the world visually, dogs perceive a detailed scentscape.”
The dogs used in conservation are versatile; they can be used in virtually any landscape quadruped wildlife lives. The specific goal for using dogs varies from project to project, but often they’re used to detect scat. Scat detection is a way to find the presence of an animal without trapping, collaring or darting, simply put it’s non-invasive. Detecting where an animal is allows conservationists to help set aside the land that animal needs most. Dogs are 40 times more efficient than human researchers at finding scat and aren’t biased towards scat of adult individuals according to Working Dogs for Conservation.
Dogs were used in the Centennial Mountains of Idaho and Montana to collect data on wolves, grizzly and black bears and mountain lions. The data collected showed that these predators showed up in places researchers never suspected and stopped the development of 1200 homes and an 18 hole golf course in critical predator habitat.
Dogs have also been used in a similar way to monitor endangered San Joaquin Kit Fox populations in California, helping steer public policy in a direction compatible with the fox.
Dogs are being used for conservation in more typical law enforcement capacities as well. In Zambia dogs have been used to sniff out poached animal parts and illegal weapons used in poaching. Other places trying similar dog projects are in Botswana and Kenya, places on the frontlines of the fight against poaching and wildlife trade.
Less on the frontlines than sniffers, dogs in Denali National Park and other protected areas in Alaska are used as sled dogs. Sled dogs allow rangers to move through the winter backcountry of parks and wilderness areas quietly. A snowmobile may seem more practical to us living in 2018 than dogs, but it’s also disruptive to wildlife, people recreating outdoors and has a greater carbon footprint than dogs. The dogs are retired at age 9 from the National Park Service, and according to their website:
“While nine years might seem quite old for a big dog, Denali’s dogs are unmatched in their health and energy at that age.”
This is why the National Park Service encourages people with active, outdoor lives to adopt one of their retired sled dogs.
I like to think that working with dogs rather than GPS collars, drones, and camera traps connects people to the environment in a more real way. Dogs can be a link between us and the wild environment that’s hard to beat.