A white-tipped tail pokes above the tall grasses on Montana's Mount Sentinel, the only sign that a dog is weaving through the brush.
With his nose to the ground, Seamus, oblivious to the panoramic views of Missoula, ignores the scents of deer scat and hikers and presses forward. When the black-and-white border collie finds what he’s looking for, he gets into a “down” position and waits. His handler, Aimee Hurt, offers praise and a ball when she sees his target: a small patch of invasive weeds hidden among the grasses.
The idea of using dogs for detection is not new: Law enforcement agencies have long deputized them to find suspects and sniff out narcotics. In conservation, though, the animals are on the front lines of environmental preservation.
Hurt is one of the handlers who patrols 1,000 acres of Mount Sentinel with Seamus. She describes the seven-year-old as a persnickety little fellow with an intense work ethic. He’s also top dog at Mount Sentinel.
Seamus was trained to sniff out Dyer’s woad, a noxious weed that takes over rangeland, choking out native plants that are an important source of food and habitat for wildlife.
The dog often works off-leash, crisscrossing quadrants of the park until he picks up the scent of Dyer’s woad. When he stops, the GPS in his bright orange doggy backpack marks the location of the invasive weed. Hurt also makes note of the coordinates and will return to spray the plant.
Since Working Dogs for Conservation was founded in 2000, a team of six full-time staff and eight dogs have helped with environmental projects, ranging from sniffing out the location of noxious weeds to finding invasive snails and animal scat.
“It’s a clever approach,” said Joseph DiTomaso, a weed specialist at the University of California, Davis. “Dogs can be trained to pick up different chemical signatures, and I think it could be very effective for [invasive species] eradication programs.”
There is such a demand for dog-led conservation efforts that Working Dogs for Conservation fields far more requests than it can accommodate. In addition to established programs like Conservation Canines at the University of Washington, there appear to be a lot of one-dog, one-handler teams taking on conservation projects.
“As more attention is being given to the economic and ecological impact of invasive [species] as a biosecurity risk, there is more willingness to look at novel approaches like working dogs to get results,” said DiTomaso.
A 2010 study published in the journal Invasive Plant Science and Management found that dogs sniffed out twice the number of invasive plants that humans could detect with their eyes.
On Mount Sentinel, organizations such as the City of Missoula, Missoula County Weed District, and the Montana Native Plant Society have been working to eradicate Dyer’s woad for more than a decade. The park is the only site in Missoula County where the invasive weed still grows.
When Working Dogs for Conservation joined the project four years ago, there were just a few hundred plants on Mount Sentinel, but those that remained were small and hard to find. Every plant that went undetected continued to spread. Seamus was able to find plants that the rangers missed.
For Seamus, working to protect the environment has saved his life. The border collie had ended up in a shelter because his energy and intensity had made him ill-suited to family life.
“Seamus is much more focused and obedient when he’s working,” Hurt said. “He is the perfect example of a dog that needs a job.”
It seems like a great gig for a dog: Conservation projects afford the affable hounds lots of fresh air and exercise—some of the dogs are world travelers, jetting off to destinations such as China to help locate Asiatic black bears. But the interview process is intense, and not every canine candidate is offered the job; up to half of the dogs fail a test. Those that are chosen go through intensive training that lasts between six weeks and four months.
The costs associated with the training and ongoing care of the dogs is one of the biggest challenges to using them for conservation work, according to Hurt.
While the animals work for treats and belly rubs, Working Dogs for Conservation relies on grants, donations, and fees for its services to meet its $500,000 annual budget. The nonprofit places trained dogs in the field until retirement at 12 and commits to taking care of them for the rest of their lives.
Seamus is a long way from retirement. After a short break and a few treats on the peak of Mount Sentinel, he’s ready to go back on patrol.
“This kind of work is his place in the world,” said Hurt.