Friday, June 24, 2011


Owen, Washington D.C.
I have already told you about bomb-sniffing dogs, which as you know, do really important work.  But guess what!  Now there is a very special kind of bomb-sniffing dog that is called a vapor wake dog.  And the way this dog is different is that it can detect bomb ingredients in the air, like for instance, if there is a crowd of people, and one of them is wearing explosives or is carrying a bomb in his briefcase.

Also a vapor wake dog can still smell the trail of bomb scent in the air 10 minutes after the person has passed, and the dog can follow the person into buildings or up stairs or into elevators or wherever the person went.

The vapor wake dog program was started at the Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine.  And the dogs trained for this job are not just any old dogs.  They are dogs that are specially bred to have a really fantastic sense of smell.  Mostly these dogs are labrador retrievers or other sporting breeds that people don't pay much attention to out on the street or in crowds because they are very common breeds.

Raven, NYPD
As soon as the puppy is born, it starts the Detector Dog Raising Program.  During the first year of its life, the puppy does all kinds of things that help it use its scent detection abilities.  After that, it goes to the Training Center, where it gets 6 weeks more of very special training, and then the dog trains with a handler for 10 weeks.

More and more police departments are getting vapor wake dogs, but they cost $20,000 apiece, so not everybody can afford one.  The U.S. Capitol Police Force has a vapor wake dog named Owen, and the NYPD has several, including one named Raven.

Dogs are good at doing any kind of job that involves sniffing, and that is because the part of a dog's brain that has to do with scent detection is 40 times bigger than the same part of a human's brain.  But I've told you before all about how good dogs are at sniffing stuff.

Anyway, another special use that humans have made of dogs' superior noses is called scat-sniffing.  Maybe you already know this, but scat is just a fancy word for poop.  Mostly it's people like forest rangers and wildlife researchers who use the word scat.  I don't know why this is, but maybe they are just too embarrassed to say "poop."

Woodland Caribou
So the way that researchers are using these scat-sniffing dogs is to study the population numbers of certain kinds of animals, and also to find out how healthy these animals are and where they hang out at different times of the year.  People can learn a lot by studying animal poop, like for instance, whose DNA is related to whose, whether anybody has stress hormones, and what everybody had for dinner last night.  Some of the animals that have been studied using scat-sniffing dogs include pumas, jaguars, armadillos, foxes, and whales.  Before scientists started learning about animals from looking at their scat, they had to put radio collars on the animals to track them.  Also they had to go up in a plane or helicopter to try to count how many animals there were.  But now they can learn all sorts of things about each animal without even seeing it in person.

An example of this was in Alberta, Canada, where scat-sniffing dogs were used to find out why there were getting to be fewer and fewer woodland caribou.  Some people thought that the wolves were killing all the caribou, but after doing the study, researchers learned that the wolves were mostly eating deer, not caribou.  And besides that, it turned out that there were almost twice as many caribou as what people thought.  The real problem for the caribou turned out to be that they were afraid of the stuff people were doing in the forest, like logging and exploring for oil.   So because they were afraid, the caribou didn't go to the places where they could get the best food.  Which meant that without the best food, and also because they felt stressed, they couldn't stay as healthy.

This study took 3 winters, with 4 trained dogs and their handlers.  The dogs found the scat of 1,914 caribou, 1,175 moose, and 327 wolves.  The diet of the wolves turned out to be 80% deer, 10% moose, and 10% caribou.  After the researchers learned this, they knew it would be a mistake to kill a bunch of the wolves, which is what people first thought would help the caribou.  Because if the wolves were gone, there would be tons more deer, and the caribou would have to compete with them for food.  So you can see that the scat-sniffing dogs were very useful in helping people learn all this important stuff and in saving their distant ancestors, the wolves.

Sniffing for Orca poop
The dogs that are used to sniff scat are not specially bred for the job, like the vapor trail dogs are.  Many times, the scat-sniffing dogs are rescued from shelters, where nobody wants to adopt them because they are so hyper.  What makes a good scat-sniffing dog is one that can't get enough of playing fetch.  This kind of dog can stay focused on finding scat while going long distances.  Then when the dog finds some, there is a 90-second play period as a reward.

I guess the dogs who look for scat are not allowed to eat it after then find it, which is kind of sad, if you ask me.  I think that wolf poop would be especially yummy because it would have a bunch of meat and bone stuff in it.  Personally, I'm a pretty good scat-sniffing dog myself, at least when it comes to cat scat. But mostly I just look for it in our front yard and maybe a few of the neighbors' yards.  It's way too much trouble to go all over the whole neighborhood trying to find it.  And getting to eat some of it is a much better reward than playing with a stupid ball!


  1. Today's blog reminded me of a special I watched at the first of the year regarding New York City preparing for New Year's Eve celebration. A 1-2 hour show was about all the dogs used to sniff for bombs, ingredients used to make bombs, etc., Numerous dogs were employed during the nights celebration; there were even dachsunds, toy poodles, etc., as they could move around the crowd easily. I don't know why the police didn't use a Basenji, as that is the smartest breed and could have found any kind of explosives immediately.
    Love, AP

  2. Dear AP,
    You are totally right in thinking that a basenji is the best dog ever for sniffing out all kinds of evil stuff such as bombs! I can't figure out why the police didn't use any basenjis. Maybe they are just uninformed. I know of one basenji that is being trained as a drug-detection dog in Georgia, but mostly you don't hear of basenjis getting this kind of training. I would rather sniff scat than explosives, like I said in my blog. I'll have to find out where I can sign up to do this.
    Love, Piper

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