Can Dogs Smell Whale Poop?

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Introduction

Dogs have a truly amazing sense of smell that's thousands of times more powerful than our own. Increasingly, scientists the world over are starting to realize that we can put our canine's remarkable schnozes to use to help solve an astounding variety of problems. Dogs can sniff out cancer in humans, detect drugs or explosives, and predict epileptic seizures before they occur.

We've trained dogs to sniff out all manner of weird and wonderful things, but perhaps one of the strangest odors we've ever asked pooches to detect is whale poop. That's right — there's a small team of dogs right here in the US tasked with sniffing out whale scat. How do they do it and, more importantly, why? Let's take a closer look to find out.

Signs Your Dog is Tracking a Scent

It's common knowledge that dogs are super-powered sniffers, and most dog owners have seen their pet's incredible ability up close. After all, how else does your furry friend know how to find the smelliest, grossest pile of who-knows-what to roll in while out on a walk?

For most of us, the first sign our dog has picked up a scent is when they simply start ignoring everything else going on around them. No matter what you say or whatever interesting sights and sounds are taking place nearby, a dog on a scent is focused entirely on tracking it down.

Depending on where the odor is coming from, your pet's nose could be pressed to the ground or thrust in the air, nostrils working frantically as they rapidly inhale and exhale to circulate the scent through their olfactory system and work out what it is. Of course, in many cases they'll then head off in whatever direction the smell takes them, tracking it closely until they've satisfied their curiosity. While this is going on, your demands for attention usually fall on deaf ears.

In the case of the professional sniffer dogs trained to sniff out whale scat, they'll actually lean over the bow of the boat in the direction the scent of seaborne stool is coming from, pointing their handlers in the direction of this unique but very important find.

Body Language

Your pet's body language can contain plenty of telltale clues that they're tracking an odor, such as:
  • Alert
  • Wag tail
  • Head turning
  • Stalking
  • Ears up

Other Signs

Other signs to look for include:
  • Sniffing the air or the ground
  • Turning their head to track the scent
  • Moving to track the scent
  • Ignoring all other distractions

The History of Dogs Sniffing for Whale Poop

At the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology, the Conservation Canine program features a team of talented canines tasked with the important job of locating wildlife scat (feces) samples. Since 1997, the program's detection dogs have been sniffing out scat from threatened and endangered species, including creatures as diverse as tigers, spotted owls, wolves and giant armadillos.

Why? Well, it's amazing how much you can learn from a pile of poo. What has the animal been eating? Has it ingested any toxins? Is it suffering from any health problems or genetic deficiencies? The list goes on and on, and these scat detection dogs are capable of locating multiple samples across large and remote areas.

Why whale poop? The orcas of Puget Sound have been called the most polluted marine mammals in the world. This small population of endangered killer whales is emblematic of the northwest, but little is known about why their population hasn't grown, what causes certain whales to die, and what effects toxicity can have on their overall health. In order to conserve these magnificent creatures, scientists first need to understand why they're struggling to survive — which is where the talented team of whale poop detection dogs comes in.

The Science of Dogs Smelling Whale Poop

Samuel Wasser, the founder of the Conservation Canine program, came up with the idea of adapting narcotic dog training methods to teach dogs to track endangered wildlife. With dogs' amazing olfactory powers making them capable of detecting minute traces of an odor buried underground or floating in a huge body of water, they were the perfect candidates to start sniffing out poop from creatures great and small.

Interestingly, there's no one particular breed best suited to the work. From Australian Cattle Dogs and Labradors to Pointers and even a Chihuahua mix, scat detection dogs come in all shapes and sizes. However, they do have a couple of things in common: they're all very active, energetic dogs and they're all ball-crazy.

Perhaps the most famous dog to ever track whale poop as part of the program is Tucker, a Labrador-cross who retired from active duty in 2017. Found wandering the north Seattle streets as a six-month old, Tucker was rescued from a shelter and trained to detect whale poop. Despite the fact that he hates water with a passion, Tucker became a hugely successful scat tracker.

Training Dogs to Smell for Whale Poop

Over the years, the Conservation Canine program has trained more than 40 four-legged detector dogs at its 4,300-acre facility. Each dog can be trained to sniff out stools from up to 13 unique species, from Pacific pocket mice to some of the giants of the deep.

How? Training centers on one crucial aspect — a dog's love of balls. If a dog is high-energy and has an inherent desire to retrieve a ball, they could potentially make an excellent scat detection dog. For the dogs, tracking down poo is more or less a game — when they find a sample, they get to play a game of fetch. 

Training basically involves teaching the dog that tracking down specific scents, like orca poop, will earn them some time with their ball. Training sessions are short and sharp, and the dogs gradually work up from associating certain scents with the ball reward to searching complex environments for scat. 

Of course, training the dogs to track scents on water is a little more complicated. For example, Tucker was first introduced to orca scat on land, and then started working in a canoe tracking scat floating aboard a styrofoam lid. Once he graduated to the real thing, Tucker would lean over the bow of the boat when he detected floating feces, tugging in the direction of the scat. After that, it's a bizarre game of "hotter or colder" between dog, handler and the boat's pilot as they try to get to the scat in time.

And with the help of dogs like Tucker, hopefully the orcas of Puget Sound can look forward to a much brighter future.

How to Train Your Dog to Search for an Odor:

  • Choose your reward. Does your dog love treats, playing with a ball, or just receiving lots of praise? Choose the option that's most likely to encourage your dog to do what you want.
  • Start slowly. Introduce your dog to the odor you want them to locate, and through repetition help them learn that finding the odor leads to a reward.
  • Get more advanced. Once your pooch associates a particular smell with a reward, you can start encouraging them to complete more complicated searches.
  • Keep it short. Make sure your training sessions are short and sweet and that you always remain patient. Remember, this is meant to be fun for you and your pet!

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