/ Opinions / Lake’s best friend?

Lake’s best friend?

April 17, 2020 by Ted Rulseh

Dogs use their amazing noses to help us in many ways. They can sniff our drugs being smuggled across our border, help track down and find missing children, locate people amid wreckage from storms, and do many other things we humans cannot.

Now imagine a dog being enlisted to help your lake in the fight against the spread of aquatic invasive species. It’s not just a fantasy. Last week’s Wisconsin Lakes and River Convention (held by computer because of the coronavirus) included a presentation from Laura Holder, co-founder and executive director of Wisconsin-based Midwest Conservation Dogs.

Holder, who has more than 15 years of experience as a trainer and canine scent detection specialist, now trains dogs to help in conservation initiatives. Her team includes six people and seven dogs, which she describes as “working professionals.” Conservation dogs are used around the world to detect plants, underground seeds, animals, insects such as emerald ash borer and gypsy moth eggs, fungi and bacteria.

“What makes dogs a great asset to our organization is their desire to work alongside our handlers,” Holder said. “They are incredibly efficient. Our dogs can be trained on multiple target odors and search for them simultaneously.” 

Dogs can detect odors in concentrations down to parts per trillion. They can even detect scents in moving water. In Wisconsin, dogs have helped state Department of Natural Resources locate rare wood turtles. In the invasive species arena, dogs are being trained to sniff out zebra and quagga mussels, a significant threat to our lakes and streams. 

The Wisconsin team is launching a mussel detection program in partnership with a California group called Mussel Dogs. Amazingly enough, the dogs can detect not just adult mussels but the larval form called veligers in water. They can do boat and trailer inspections, going around an entire rig in less than a minute, giving almost instant results. This helps to make sure that boats are mussel-free before they launch.

The Midwest group’s goal in the project is to help prevent the spread of mussels and to enable early response for infestations. 

The process of training the dogs is exacting. The dog is given a sample of the target odor to sniff and immediately receives a reward (usually food or a toy). After several repetitions, the handler hides a training sample somewhere in the environment so the dog has to search for it. On finding it the dog again receives a reward. Dogs are then taken into simulated field conditions and again tasked with finding training samples. 

Some of the conservation dogs were rescued from shelters; others are selected from breeders who specialize in scent detection training. 

“The common denominator is that they all love to work, and they all love to work with their handlers,” Holder said. A strong bond between the two is essential.

The fight against invasive species is never-ending; conservation dogs can be another ally. It’s not hard to imagine dogs being trained to sniff out other aquatic invaders, like a variety of invasive plants. You can find at more at www.midwestconservationdogs.com.

Ted Rulseh resides on Birch Lake in Harshaw and is an advocate for lake protection and improvement. His Lakeland Times and Northwoods River News columns are the basis for a book, “A Lakeside Companion,” published by The University of Wisconsin Press. Ted may be reached at [email protected]


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