How Dogs Use Their Noses to Help Protect Rare Animals and Plants: “Find a Wig Mushroom!”

Dogs can help protect rare animals and plants. Specially trained animals can track down an endangered species without disturbing it.

A dog’s nose is capable of doing amazing things. Study after study highlights its exceptional capabilities. One of the most recent results published in Plus one, is that dogs can smell that a person is stressed. They notice it in our sweat and breath, because the mix of chemicals we release changes when we’re under stress. Dogs’ noses have evolved to pick up on such nuances.

Therefore, it is not surprising that dogs are used in the search for explosives, drugs and missing persons. They can find coins and detect diseases in laboratory samples. In the fight against wildlife decline, they are useful for detecting contraband such as shark fins and ivory, or tracking down poachers on elephants and rhinos in the field.

Recently, dogs’ input into nature conservation has also taken on a constructive aspect: they can be used to monitor populations of animals (and plants) that are hard to find. The big advantage is that they can do this without endangering the species involved – of course it doesn’t make sense to invest in researching endangered animals and plants if you disrupt the population. More attention to hard-to-find species is essential for efficient nature conservation. Until recently, this was mainly the work of volunteers, who were often limited to amazing species from the world of birds and butterflies. But they are only part of the story.

Mushrooms and wolves

Biologist Arno Thomaes of the Institute for Nature and Forest Research (INBO) was the first to take a close look at canine cucumbers in Flanders. Among other things, he works with the endangered stag beetle. These are large beetles that live in and out of dead wood that have become rare, in part because the forest department has long had no place for dead wood. Stag beetles are notoriously hard to find. They are only visible for about three weeks a year, after which it is usually only an hour per day if the weather is good enough. They spend most of their lives as larvae in the soil. You can then dig in suitable spots to see if there are larvae, but then you disturb the animals and their biotope. Dogs can solve this problem. You can train them to smell the caterpillars which they can smell even in the ground without having to dig.

One dog helped collect wolf droppings to determine the diet of a lone wolf pack in Flanders.

Thomaes contacted biologists Ellen Van Krunkelsven (of the Police Dog Support Service) and Hilde Vervaecke (Odisee Hogeschool in Sint-Niklaas). Both have extensive experience in dog training and nature management. Together, they launched a campaign to find volunteers who would like to use their dogs in a training and research programme. After a series of tests, eight out of a hundred candidates remained. Training is stressful: it takes one to two years to train a dog, which is the main bottleneck for applying this technique.

It turns out that it is effectively possible to train a dog to find stag beetles in the ground. At INBO’s request, similar programs have been initiated to search for otters, dormouse nests, an invasive bullfrog that is a problem for local wildlife, and the extremely rare wig mushroom, which lives on old deciduous trees. A dog is also being trained to track down sick hedgehogs. A necessity, because our hedgehogs are susceptible to a strange disease.

At the moment, INBO has had the best results with a dog who is very good at finding wolf droppings. A feat, as most dogs are afraid of it. However, one animal (trainer Carina De Pape’s Wietse retriever) wasn’t deterred. Wietse helped biologist Jan Gouwy collect enough wolf droppings to determine the diet of Flanders’ lone wolf pack. 70 percent of it contains roe deer, and 23 percent is wild boar. Only 13 percent have livestock tracks. Contrary to the impression sometimes created – that the wolves almost snatch sheep and ponies out of idleness – they seem to find their food mainly in nature. Cattle are mainly targeted in the fall, when there are youngsters in the herd who need a lot of food and still have to learn everything themselves.


The dog knowledge of the Flemish project was presented, together with the foreign findings, at a symposium in Sint-Niklaas, under the title Noses for Nature. Biologist Van Krunkelsven discussed the many challenges involved in the proper training of trail dogs. Because the big advantage that a dog’s sensitive nose offers for this type of project is also an important drawback: You have to make sure you train a dog on exactly what is needed to find the intended animals or plants. For example, it makes no sense to put dogs on cotton wool, with which you will apply a trace of smell. There is a danger that their attention will be drawn to the scents of dead animals if they have to search for live scents. And feces from captive animals used for training can smell differently than those from animals in the wild due to the presence of different foods.

A project is underway to train dogs to find bat carcasses under windmills.

A project is underway to train dogs to find bat carcasses under windmills in an effort to assess how harmful windmills are to bat populations. The researchers concluded that they should be careful about offering dead bats from the refrigerator: the dogs could be put down the wrong lane. Dogs are also very good at “reading” their trainer. If he acts predictably during training, it can distract the dog from his actual task. The dog must also be in good health, because experience has shown that he performs less when he is a little sick.

So there is no shortage of pitfalls, but it can be done. Dogs can apply what they have learned remarkably well in the field, provided they are trained according to the rules of the art. The Dutch dog trainer Hoche Luik, the British Louise Wilson and the German Annegret Grim Seyfarth confirmed at the symposium that the dog rarely makes mistakes. If things go wrong, the problem usually lies with the coach/supervisor. The trainer could have very high expectations of the dog or want to go too fast, so that the dog does not get the training it needs. Not all dogs are equally trainable, or equally willing to exercise themselves long enough in the field. There can be very little interaction between the owner and the dog to make for a good collaboration, just like the interaction between a canine handler and the naturalist whose project is being worked on.

no smell

If you succeed, the results can be amazing. Researchers have found that dogs are very effective at finding hiding places for rare amphibians in temporarily dry areas. In an experimental project, dogs quickly discovered 163 salamander hiding places, while human experts found none. The salamander turned out to burrow deeper into the ground than he thought. Good results are now also encouraging other organizations, such as the WWF, to use tracker dogs in their projects.

Dogs have proven to be very effective at finding the hiding places of rare amphibians.

But it doesn’t always work. A pilot project tracking rare glowworm larvae has yielded no useful results at the moment: the larvae seem to secrete too little of a scent, especially during the day, for dogs to pick it up efficiently. The lack of smell can be an interesting topic in itself. South African biologist Ash Miller trained dogs to confirm what scientists suspected: that these highly toxic types of toxins emit no scent. They are well visually camouflaged to lie in ambush on the forest floor to deceive prey, but this would be less noticeable if they gave off a scent of their own. Scientists were able to teach dogs to pick up scents from snake skin after they molted, but live rattlesnakes never smelled them — unlike other snake species. Even meerkats (their patented snake catchers) and elephants, whose proboscis nose is more complex than that of a dog’s, can’t smell a puffer adder. This is called a “chemical crepe” in biologist’s terms: being chemically invisible. This interesting phenomenon has also been documented using the sensitive noses of dogs. •

Leave a Comment