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Dogs Detecting Scat

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Sniffer dogs are important partners in conservation work, and many have been trained to find droppings from specific species such as jaguars and ocelots. Their ability to detect scat helps researchers who want to estimate population levels, keep track of where different individuals of endangered species live, and learn what they eat. Advances in genetics allow these researchers to determine the sex of the animal that left the feces and even link the feces to specific individuals. Working dogs make it possible to learn this information in a non-invasive way, without the risk of harming animals and without the need to actually sight these elusive species.

If dogs find the wrong type of scat and alert their handlers as if it were the target scat, it will cost researchers time and money as this sample will be processed and research resources will be wasted. (Fortunately, this doesn’t ruin the research as DNA testing on the sample will reveal the error and be excluded from the study.)


It is usually believed that mistakes which dogs become aware of in the wrong way are due to incomplete training of the dog or the human handler. However, a new study (“How Non-Target Species Behavior Affects Perceived Accuracy of Scat Detection Dog Surveys”) shows that this guilt may be false. In fact, there are three possible explanations for the obvious mistakes dogs have made, and they relate to the ecological complexities of the environment and the behavior of various non-target species. Other species contaminate the feces. The result is that genetic analysis in the laboratory shows that the DNA in the Scat does not come from the species being examined.

The genetic profile of the Scat is modified in at least three ways by non-target species. Species other than the species of interest may urinate on the feces of interest, creating confusion in laboratory analysis of genetics. Non-target species can carry the target droppings in their mouths, resulting in similar contamination of the sample, making it appear that the detection dog made a mistake. A third way in which contamination of the sample due to natural behavior in the field can occur is through coprophagia. If an individual of another species eats the target species ‘droppings, the droppings of the animal that ate it will still contain the target species’ odors, which is why a sniffer dog will alert you to this. Urinating on faeces, eating them, and holding them in your mouth to move them are all natural behaviors of a number of wildlife species. It is particularly common in species that use urine and feces to mark areas – a behavior that is common in both dogs and cats.



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