Wednesday, May 22, 2013
It's not an idea to pooh-pooh.
Sable, a German shepherd mix, and handler Scott Reynolds check a beach for septic seepage in Suttons Bay, Mich. Sable is coming to Maine for more detective work.
Robert Domm photo
Logan, a rough-coated collie mix, alerts handler Karen Reynolds that human waste is in the water flowing out of a pipe into Lake Michigan. Logan’s favorite work reward is food.
Environmental Canine Services photo
In fact, it seems so obvious that it's hard to believe no one thought of it sooner: dogs sniffing for human waste.
They smell almost everything else that's foul anyway. Might as well find a good use for the trait.
That's exactly what a Michigan company has done. With a team of four "sniffers," Scott and Karen Reynolds of Vermontville, Mich., started Environmental Canine Services in 2009 to offer a unique specialty: finding sources of human waste in water systems.
The Reynoldses and two male rescue dogs -- a German shepherd mix named Sable and a rough-coated collie mix, Logan -- are traveling halfway across the country to work this week in five communities from Portsmouth, N.H., to Portland. Two other dogs on their team are staying at home.
"Where there are issues of high bacteria," the dogs "detect human sources of bacteria," said Emily DiFranco, project manager with FB Environmental of Portsmouth. The consulting firm specializes in directing environmental planning and monitoring projects, including mapping and water projects, mostly for public-sector clients.
The firm calls on Environmental Canine Services for thorny issues -- when humans can't make scents of what's gone wrong.
Both humans and dogs rely on their senses of sight, hearing and smell to interpret the data of the world around them. Most humans communicate first by hearing; dogs start by smelling.
"While a dog's brain is only one-tenth the size of a human brain, the part that controls smell is 40 times larger than in humans," says the Dog Breed Information group's website. Depending on the breed, "a dog's sense of smell is about 1,000 to 10 (million) times more sensitive than a human's. A human has about 5 million scent glands, compared to a dog, who has anywhere from 125 million to 300 million."
So in cases that defy humans' ability to detect potential problems, a dog can be an expert detective.
Using a dog's capacity to not only smell a specific thing, but also to distinguish it from any other stench, draws on the canine's "natural instinct," said Scott Reynolds. If the dog is trained to bring that natural ability to the fore, he said, "that's when you see that focus."
The idea to train dogs for this very particular job came almost by accident, when Reynolds, an engineer, was working for a firm in Lansing, Mich.
One day, his boss -- who knew Reynolds had experience in training dogs for search and rescue -- asked him, "Do you think you could train a dog to smell poop?"
"At first it was funny," said Reynolds. "Then I thought, 'Why not?' Dogs are doing so many things, so many different things."
To his surprise, he found "it had never been done," he said. So he and his wife -- who met at a dog-training class he was teaching -- set out to find a method to train their dogs for a task that humans find unpalatable, and nearly impossible.
Sable was their first recruit from a rescue organization, because a video online showed him to be a dog with "fantastic drive, focus ... and he's not afraid of water," Reynolds said.
All of their rescue dogs have proven to be excellent candidates for the job, Reynolds said. "They're certainly capable of doing this," he said.
The couple got wastewater samples from a treatment plant and essentially built a course of "manholes, catch basins, curb inlets and other pipe materials" in their backyard. Then they trained the dogs to "alert" to human fecal sewage.
Once the dogs get the hang of it, distraction scents are added -- like cow manure -- to help them narrow their olfactory focus. "It's sort of a calibration thing now," Reynolds said.
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