A Dalmatian sniffs the grass.

Can Poop-Sniffing Dogs Save a Species?

If you’ve ever walked a dog, you’ve seen first-hand just how strong their sense of smell can be. An ordinary, everyday patch of grass presents them with a world of scents, totally undetectable to the human nose. Our noses have around six million scent receptors. While that may sound impressive, it’s nothing compared to a dog’s 300 million.

Hard-working hounds put that impressive olfactory power to good use around the globe. Detection dogs help law enforcement and military officials identify dangerous and illegal materials, search and rescue dogs help hunt down missing persons, and medical alert dogs hone in on subtle indicators to warn owners of incoming medical emergencies. At the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology, dogs are taking their noses out into the field for a new kind of task: detecting wildlife scat.

Meet Eba the Whale Dog

Experts recently settled on the term “in fimo” to describe any feces examined in a clinical setting. Ecologists and conservationists, however, generally employ the term “scat” to refer to the samples they collect in the wild. While there’s no shortage of synonyms for feces, scat is probably the only one that refers to wildlife droppings in particular.

The biologists at the Center for Conservation Biology can learn a lot about an animal from examining its scat. That’s why they started their Conservation Canines program in 1997. At its outset, the program involved retraining narcotics detection dogs to sniff out scat from animals like bears, wolves, and spotted owls. These days, rescue dogs join in on the important work. Eba, who was recently profiled in TODAY, is one of those pups that’s found a new home and a new occupation.

The mixed-breed dog was dangerously underweight and nearing death when she was left at a Sacramento animal shelter. It took several months of care to get her back in sniffing shape. Dr. Deborah Giles adopted her and quickly realized that she’d make a great Conservation Canine. Soon, Eba was out on the Salish Sea helping Dr. Giles locate scat from endangered Southern Resident killer whales.

Sniffing Poop to Save Whales

Just 74 Southern Resident killer whales are alive on the planet. Dogs like Eba aren’t just helping researchers like Dr. Giles collect genetic or physiological data, they could potentially be keeping a species from extinction. Studying whales presents an inherent challenge. Scientists generally need to keep their distance to avoid disturbing whale pods and causing these vulnerable animals any undue stress. The Southern Resident killer whale is even more challenging to study because its scat is notably smaller and harder to spot than that of other whale species. This makes dogs and their amazing snouts a welcome addition to any of Conservation Canine’s whalewatching crews. “They can smell these things from a mile away,” says Dr. Giles, “literally a mile away.”

It’s not hard to tell when a scat detecting dog has clued into a scent. Throughout most of their excursions, dogs wait calmly at the front of the boat. Once scat hits their nostrils, they begin to whine, lick their lips, and gesture toward the source of the smell. Oftentimes, the boat will need to change directions numerous times as the scat moves around throughout the water. Dogs communicate these changes to their handlers, who then relay these messages to the boat’s pilot. The collected scat is next taken to labs where researchers can learn all about the small Southern Resident population and better prioritize their conversation efforts.

While Eba is just one of Conservation Canine’s super-sniffing dogs, her recent publicity has made her undoubtedly the most famous. Check out her Instagram page to watch this impressive pooch at work.