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Why sniffer dogs make mistakes when monitoring wild beasts of prey

author Lucy Byrne | Interesting information

These sniffer dogs are valued members of environmental protection teams that are an alternative to camera traps or other, more invasive, methods of localization of individual animals in the given regions. For example, they participated in a study dedicated to an identification of a path of endangered mountain lions and other carnivores along a biologically significant corridor in Argentina. Their advantage is that they use their smell and not their vision for localization and they can find excrements hidden in tall grass, samples that dissolved in mud due to rain.

Not even the cases when dogs sniffer a wrong type of excrements don’t ruin the results of the research. Scientist who used this method to monitor animals usually take DNA tests for the found samples to confirm or disprove the type of animal.  However, collecting and testing false positive findings takes time and costs money.

So far, it was assumed that if a non-target sample appears in detection studies (i.e. the excrements are from another animal than the monitored one), there was a mistake in the training of the sniffer dog or on the side of the whipper. The above-mentioned study proved that it does not have to be always true. The complexity of the ecosystem in which the study is performed might influence the accuracy of sniffer dogs. Natural behaviour of non-target types of animals might change the genetic profile of the excrement of the target type.

One example of this natural behaviour is coprophagia – i.e. eating excrements. With wild cats, this behaviour is connected to territorial or nutrition benefits, with coyotes, eating pumas’ excrements is a new finding and the fact that coprophagia occurs naturally and with various circumstances has various environmental consequences.

Experiments done in the area of St. Louis showed that urine marking of non-target species might influence the ability of sniffer dogs to localize the desired type of animal and also what happens when one animal carries an excrement of another one in its mouth somewhere else or when this sample gets into contact with its saliva.

Thanks to these studies, experts found out that all of these three patterns of natural behaviour of wild animals change the genetic profile of the excrement of the monitored animal species and that it plays role in identifying wrong samples of excrement by sniffer dogs.

Currently, the areas where sniffer dogs are used for environment protection get wider and the number of dogs as well as the monitored animal species grows. To be honest, it is easier to train a dog well than a whipper. There is a higher risk of a mistake on the side of the human.

As I have already written, mistakenly identified excrement samples slow down animal monitoring and make it more difficult but they bring valuable information on the function of the ecosystem and bring light to the question of parasites transfer or disease transfer, for example.