Will work for steak
Rogue, like all of us, works for food. (He prefers his steak medium rare.) Unlike us, however, he is a five-year-old Belgian Sheepdog whose owner, Dave Vesely, is the executive director of the Oregon Wildlife Institute. Rogue's latest accomplishment: spotting an endangered plant and the precious, pin-sized eggs laid there by an endangered butterfly.
Dogs are really good at finding all sorts of things by scent. Hunting with their noses, dogs have been trained since ancient times in the search and rescue of humans. More recently, their horizons and usefulness have been expanded to include searching for explosives, contraband, and the scat of endangered species of animals.
Greg Fitzpatrick, Corvallis Land Steward for the Nature Conservancy in Oregon, says the idea of using dogs to pick out plants first came to him when he read in a local newspaper that Dave Vesely was using dogs to track a rare turtle. "It seemed to me that if a dog could find the nests of a turtle, a dog could also be trained to find a plant at its peak time of flowering." On his mind was the Kincaid's lupine, whose peak flowering period is only two weeks long, some time from April through July. "The dog is using his nose; we're using our eyes and trying to find small, flowering plants in a blackberry thicket, for instance, is time-consuming and not always successful."
What makes Kincaid's lupine important, other than its own endangered status, is that it is the one plant where the endangered Fender's blue butterfly lays its eggs. The Fender's blue is tiny, about an inch across, so is not easy to find even when a full-fledged butterfly. To make its survival even more difficult, it lays one egg at a time on the back of a Kincaid's lupine leaf, each egg no larger than the head of a pin. In addition, the habitat preferred by the lupine and the butterfly is disappearing.
Fitzpatrick approached Vesely and Debbie Smith of the Working Dogs for Conservation Foundation with his idea. Smith was enthusiastic, since she has trained dogs to find just about everything, from the scat of grizzly bears and endangered species such as kit foxes to invasive weeds like Dyers woad and spotted knapweed. For her, personality is a key element of a good search dog. "We want a dog that is play oriented and will be quick to understand that there's a reward in finding what they're looking for; we also want a dog with an incredible work ethic, one that enjoys good human-dog interaction and is confident and independent. But not too independent," she adds, laughing, "which means most terriers are no good for this."
They didn't keep track of the number of plants found by each dog, just the number of plots in which the dogs correctly indicated that there were lupine present or not. Three dogs (including Rogue) did a total of 378 plots and made five errors, Vesely says. He plans to submit a manuscript shortly to a "leading journal of conservation biology."
Some people can detect the odor of lupine when the plants are in close proximity and flowering, he says. The dogs, however, seem to find plants without flowers—even desiccated plants—just as well as plants in full bloom.
From a physical point of view, breed is not as important as size, Smith adds: "We want a medium to large dog as they must cover a lot of terrain, and we want ones that have not been bred so their nose is of little use, like Pugs." They have found mixed breeds are good, as are Labrador retrievers, Border Collies, German Shepherds, and of course, Belgian Sheepdogs.
Rogue is very good at finding Kincaid's lupine because he has a good search-dog personality, according to his owner. "When he looks at me, I can see him trying to anticipate what I am going to ask him to do," Vesely says.