‘Bad dogs’ may save the world


Article by Colette Kase, first published in October 2018 Dogs Today

Those who fail to make the grade as a family pet could perhaps have the energy and drive needed for vital conservation work

Tony’s future was not looking good. Sure, he was handsome and charming with his shiny chocolate coat and lopsided grin, but he was, apparently, a ‘bad’ dog. For anyone working in the world of dog rehoming, Tony was not the dog you wanted to see, again and again and again and again. In fact, Tony was adopted and abandoned by four separate homes, who all thought they had what it took to provide him with a great life. They didn’t.

Tony quite likes digging. Tony really loves toys, in a sort of obsessive, crazy, insane way. The sort of way that wears owners out. When they were all worn out, they would put him in the garden and he’d dig. Tony was on the fast track to being labelled as ‘unadoptable’ and that label, as we all know, can be a death sentence. Luckily for Tony, his behaviour didn’t take him on that one-way trip to the vet. Instead it took him on a one-way trip to Tanzania and he’s now a hero in the battle to save our planet.

Dogs like Tony may not make great family pets, but they can make extraordinary working dogs. Following the attack on the World Trade Centre buildings in New York City in 2001, the resulting increased security and the subsequent wars in the Middle East, the demand for purpose-bred and trained detection dogs increased dramatically. Unscrupulous breeders stepped in to exploit this shortage and, through irresponsible breeding for profit, caused an upsurge in genetic problems, such as hip dysplasia, among popular working dog breeds.


Not-for-profit detection dog organisations couldn’t afford the dogs that were coming on to the market any more, nor did they want to be associated with poor breeding programmes and bad training practices. Their experience informed them that the traits they were looking for in dogs were exactly the sort of behaviours that pet owners didn’t want. So they shifted their search to shelter dogs and started to find just what they were looking for – dogs that were high energy, toy focused and intense. Really, really intense.

Tony was first talent spotted by the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation. During their assessment at the shelter in North Carolina, while looking for dogs, they tried Tony out, but his toy drive was even too much for them. Fortunately, there is a network of excellent working dog organisations throughout the United States and so they were able to bring Tony to the attention of Working Dogs for Conservation (WD4C). It turned out that Tony’s toy fetish was precisely what they were looking for and so

started Tony’s journey to becoming part of a unique group of working conservation dogs.

WD4C was founded by a female powerhouse of conservationists, ecologists, biologists, animal behaviourists and dog trainers with decades of knowledge and experience between them – Dr Megan Parker, Dr Deborah Woollett, Aimee Hurt and Alice Whitelaw. With the combined skills and experience of these four women, WD4C built upon existing knowledge in narcotics and cadaver detection as well as search and rescue and developed a programme that brings out the absolute best in ‘bad’ dogs.

That’s just one of the many things that make WD4C the world’s leading conservation detection organisation. WD4C dogs have what can only be described as ‘mad skills’. They can detect plants, still underground, that haven’t even sprouted yet to protect environments from harmful invasive species, which can save entire habitats from destruction. They can identify organisms that are disease vectors and save animal populations. These are hugely important areas of work that are at the forefront of saving our planet.

But these dogs are also right on the frontline, helping to find poachers in Zambia and Tanzania by using their incredible olfactory abilities to locate things like smuggled hippo teeth, elephant ivory, rhino horn, pangolin scales and to discover the tools of the trade by identifying snares, guns, ammunition and poison, which are used by poachers to drive endangered species into extinction.


WD4C believe that the scouts and handlers they employ don’t have to come to them with specialist dog experience. In fact, it’s harder to unteach bad habits that may have been learned elsewhere. WD4C would rather build on the scouts’ intuitive and natural propensity for working with the dogs and teach them good habits from the start. As science-based, positive methods are at the core of their dog training ethos, they work hard to build up a dynamic and close working bond between handlers and dogs.

WD4C don’t just teach the handlers how to train and work with the dogs, they teach them dog husbandry, health monitoring and general dog care. Because the communication between dog and handler is the most essential part of an effective working team, they place a

huge emphasis on ‘speaking dog’. The most challenging part, it seems, for these Tanzanian and Zambian men, is learning how to use a high-pitched, happy voice when interacting with and encouraging the dogs, as it’s something they are really not used to doing.

Mogoye Rugatiri is one of the K9 handlers in the Serengeti working with Tony and three other rescued conservation detection dogs. He had a background working with horses. His heartfelt comments on his work give an insight into the commitment of the WD4C team.

“When you start training the dog, you must be happy every time and the dog will work well. If there was no money, I would still work with the dog.”

The incredible relationship between K9 handlers and their WD4C dogs is so strong that when the dogs retire, they most often stay with the handler they’ve been matched with and worked with. Separating them after all that time working together is like losing a family member for the handler and is equally devastating for the dog. The handlers grow to adore the dogs and so rehoming is utterly unthinkable.

When dogs like Tony are brought to the attention of WD4C as potential recruits, they must first go through a very specific assessment programme, which has been developed in conjunction with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw), called Rescues 2 the Rescue (www.rescues2therescue.org/need-a-dog/). If someone is aware of a dog who they think could have a future as a conservation detection dog, Rescues 2 the Rescue will provide them with guidance and tools that will enable them to assess and score the dog for suitability.

The assessment focuses on the dog’s toy drive and persistence, even when presented with distractions and obstructions. It’s been designed to identify the traits that WD4C know are the markers of a potential conservation detection dog, providing a well-measured overview of a dog’s prospects. The ultimate result is that through saving a dog from a shelter, many more animal lives are saved.

Dr Pete Coppolillo, conservationist and executive director of WD4C, says of their work, “We rescue the dogs that we train. It’s a cool thing to be part of. One animal does something amazing in service of these other animals that are amazing.”


An excellent example of the extraordinary abilities of these dogs to protect wildlife when humans may have failed alone is a bust by Ruger, a WD4C conservation detection dog, who was working at a roadblock in Zambia. A hugely overloaded minibus with nearly 20 people, their accompanying luggage and other items squashed aboard was stopped for inspection. The doors at the back had been tied together with rope to prevent everything and everyone on board from tumbling out on to the dusty road. After the passengers had left the minibus, they stood on the side of the road, in the heat, and waited for what they must have thought would be a cursory once-over.

What they hadn’t anticipated was that they were about to experience the virtuosity of a conservation detection dog. Ruger went to work, using his canine olfactory superpowers. Possessing more than 220 million scent receptors and being capable of detecting a single teaspoon of sugar in a million gallons of water, he worked his way around the vehicle. He checked the wheel wells, he checked underneath and then, when he reached the back, he alerted.


The scouts he was working with gave everything a visual evaluation and could see nothing suspicious, but they trusted Ruger. So, they untied the ropes and unloaded the vehicle cargo. They allowed Ruger to search again and he identified a single piece of luggage.

A human inspection of the luggage still produced no results, so the scouts emptied the suitcase and laid its contents out on the ground. Ruger decided on one specific garment and so the scouts thoroughly inspected it. In one of the pockets was a matchbox. In the matchbox was something small and wrapped in plastic. That item was what is known as a ‘primer cap’, which is the ignition source for an illegal muzzle-loader used to kill elephants.

Dr Coppolillo commented, “All the people who were on that bus were amazed and from that moment on, Ruger was famous. People in villages that Ruger has never visited will see a black dog and ask, ‘Is that Ruger?’ And, the best part is they tell other people that if you try to smuggle guns or ammunition or wildlife products like ivory, rhino horn, or pangolin scales, Ruger and the other dogs will catch you.”

Because the dogs regularly help scouts locate and seize guns, their impact is huge. Dr Coppolillo continues by explaining, “These homemade muzzle-loaders are made from car parts and some are very crude. They’re awfully inaccurate and often shoot pieces of rebar or metal scraps so they maim and wound animals and the poacher just tracks them down until they bleed to death. It’s an ugly process, so we’re grateful that our team of anti-poaching dogs confiscate so many guns. These guns get shared around. As many as 10 poachers may use a single gun, so when one gets confiscated, they all get put out of business.”

WD4C save the lives of ‘bad’ dogs like Tony and Ruger and in turn, these awe-inspiring dogs, working closely with their human partners, are helping to save us all. They are, of course, incredibly lucky, as only one in a thousand dogs assessed as potential conservation dogs make the grade. As the work these dogs do becomes more appreciated and more funding becomes available, more lives will be saved. P


If you’d like to find out more about WD4C or would like to help. their website is https://wd4c.org/

Article by Colette Kase, first published in October 2018 Dogs Today


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