Reporting from the Blackfoot Valley, Mont. — Squatting next to his quarry, the dog's eyes locked onto an athletic blond woman who was approaching cautiously.
Her hand reached into her backpack and the Belgian Malinois rose slowly to his feet, his butterscotch eyes burning with intensity. As the woman brought out a length of knotted rope and leather, he lunged and snapped his powerful jaws around the tanned hide.
He bared his teeth and began to pull, peddling backward. She set her heels and the two whirled around the Western Montana grassland on this crisp autumn morning in a ferocious game of tug of war.
"This," said Megan Parker, "is his paycheck."
The Belgian sheepherder's name is Pepin. He's no hunting dog or sporting breed out for fun. He's a working dog, one of a few dozen highly trained, toy-crazed canines that are changing the way wildlife biologists such as Parker figure out what's lurking in the woods.
These dogs of various breeds don't rely on their eyes, the way puny-nosed humans do, to try to make sense of the world. They are trained to use their pronounced noses and superior sense of smell to canvass the landscape for animals, animal scat, rare plants and invasive weeds that too easily elude human discovery.
These elite detection dogs have sniffed out invasive, predatory snails in Hawaii and tree snakes in the jungles of Guam. They've climbed the mountains of Central Asia for telltale signs of snow leopards, hunted for nearly extinct rhinos in Vietnam, padded through Kenya in pursuit of cheetahs, and tracked moon bears in China.
Some have taken position on the bow of small boats off New England and used their noses and enthusiastic body movements to point biologists toward the few remaining North Atlantic right whales. Or more precisely, they help steer them to orange, stinky whale poop left behind, which floats for about a half-hour before sinking.
Much of the work involves looking for scat, which can offer a bounty of clues to the health of wildlife populations. Besides analyzing diet and parasites, scientists examine hormones to determine gender, health and stress levels, and extract DNA that confirms the type of species, families and individuals. All that makes rigorous population surveys possible.
Genetic analyses are costly, though, so it pays to use a discriminating nose to determine what samples go to the lab. Detection dogs learn to locate specific targets through extensive training that involves trial and reward: Place a known type of scat in one of a half-dozen jars and teach the dog to associate finding it with a reward. Such exercises get more complicated by setting the scat in a field of mixed smells and rewarding the dog for picking up one specific scent and following it to its source.
Parker, director of the nonprofit Working Dogs for Conservation, relies on Pepin to help her sort through piles of purported snow leopard scat shipped to her from Mongolia. A few weeks ago, she had set out more than 100 samples on cinderblocks in her yard in Bozeman, Mont.; Pepin selected the real thing. His nose knows, she said. "It saves the project a lot of money."
On this fall morning in western Montana, Pepin headed off to work, bouncing along a dirt road in the back of Parker's Volkswagen hatchback. He couldn't be happier.
Parker and other biologists were working to keep wildlife corridors open for wolverines and other reclusive predators that require room to roam. Now, a wolverine had been spotted on a private 20,000-acre ranch.
When Parker opened the hatchback, Pepin bolted. He tore around the grassland, bouncing with excitement. "He's a psycho-dog," Parker said. In this line of work, that's apparently a compliment.
Trainers have found that working breeds — herders, retrievers and shepherds — often have what it takes for demanding days in the field. It's actually less pedigree and more personality that matters: the intense, type-A, high-energy, obsessive, toy-crazed "play drive."
It's the kind of dog that makes a lousy pet. Without a task, they channel all of their high-strung, neurotic energy into inventing games, like tossing and chewing shoes or rearranging the furniture, one bite at a time.
Dog pounds and shelters are prime recruiting spots. A first test often involves bouncing a ball down the aisle among the cages. Forget the growlers, the lungers, the yappers, the submissive ones that roll over for a belly rub. The pooches with potential cannot keep their eyes off the ball.
"These dogs are so driven they will work all day to get their ball," said Samuel Wasser, a biologist who uses detection dogs at the University of Washington's Center for Conservation Biology. "You can throw their ball into their food and they would rather have the ball."