In addition to their scent-tracking abilities, specially trained dogs aid conversation efforts by enabling researchers to study animals in more non-direct ways.
Advertisement

Somewhere in the wilds of Malaysia, Rita Santos and her dog Hera are walking through knee high grass. The area they're working in is a known habitat for tigers and other big cats, which means that it's also a popular hunting grounds for the poachers who track them. That's why, on this day under the beating Malaysian sun, Santos and Hera are looking for poop.

For decades, animal conservation studies relied almost exclusively on physically locating the species in question. Most of the time, this was accomplished by attracting an animal to a particular area to capture specimens through live trapping, or by recording their presence indirectly via camera traps and tracking stations. It was a slow, tedious process that was not always guaranteed success.

But in more recent decades, dogs like Hera have become increasingly valuable tools in conservation efforts because of their ability to track various targets through scent and enable groups to study animals in more non-direct ways.

"To help monitor species," Santos says. "To help elusive animals, she finds invasive species, [but] her main job is to find poop."

An animal's scat can provide incredibly valuable information to conservation groups regarding the overall health of the animals they study. One scat sample can provide information regarding an animal's diet, genetics and hormone levels, as well information such as identifying the presence of parasites or biological abnormalities. And, importantly, it can allow scientists to gather this information without any direct contact with the animal itself.

Hera was born to a stray litter in the busy streets of Lisbon. Taken in by a shelter as a puppy, she was adopted by a family at six months old, but was surrendered back to the shelter when her energy levels proved to be more than the adopting family could handle. That's where she would stay for another year, until Santos adopted the then-two year old dog in 2017. Santos, by then an experienced conservation dog handler working with a dog named Zeus, was looking for a new dog to train for the job, and she thought that Hera's big energy levels would come in handy in the field.

"We tested her and she did awesome," Santos says. "She came into my life to be a spare dog, because it's good to have two dogs so one doesn't get all the work [and] she ended up doing the whole project herself. 

That joy has taken Santos and Hera to seven different countries, aiding in animal conservation efforts for a startling range of animals. Trained in the identification of 17 different targets, Hera and Santos have helped track down brown bears, several species of wolf, sea turtle nests, even grasshoppers and lizards.

"Once I was able to get Hera, we started to work full time," Santos says. "We go from project to project, so it's kind of a lifestyle, instead of a job,"

In addition to doing important, scientifically valuable work together, Santos credits her relationship with Hera for making her a more well-rounded person. Calling herself "a very anxious person" by nature, Santos says that Hera provides a calming influence when they aren't working in the field, giving Santos a feeling of comfort in their downtimes. That connection is of vital importance, because how smart a dog is or how much it can smell is only part of the equation when it comes to working in conservation. Every bit as important, is the relationship between dog and handler and how well the two can work as one.

"She is the center of my world right now," Santos says. "I think I'm a better person in general, just because I'm around dogs."