A brown Belgian Malinois with black markings and large pointy ears is scanning a neighborhood in Missoula, Mont. Sporty and focused, her name is Tule and she stares at me: “Don’t mess with me.” Her owner, Megan Parker, follows quietly, waiting for Tule to find the droppings she hid in a neighbor’s yard. Over the years, it has become a routine Parker activity to scat the neighborhood. “Hello Jake,” Parker says to her neighbor. “She’s going to get this dangerous crap out of your yard.”
Jake laughs. “Work hard Tule!”
Seconds later, Tule sits down by a small stream. Quiet and calm and very calm, she keeps her dark eyes on Parker, a signal that she has found the target buried under the rocks: mountain lion droppings.
“Oh you found it?” Parker whispers. “Who’s the best dog ever?”
Finally, at the moment that Tule has been patiently waiting for, a chance to play with her rope toy. Then, after a minute or two of pickup, she goes back to work trying to find the next droppings.
Parker and Tule train for their work at Working Dogs for Conservation, a nonprofit that Parker founded with three colleagues nearly 20 years ago to train and use sniffer dogs in the field. With her nose, Tule helps answer some of nature’s most pressing questions. In this work, dogs have a great advantage: they have no prejudices. For example, they don’t have a model in mind of where bears should be. They follow their noses and find the poop that proves where they are.
Parker – tall, athletic, and born in Montana – has not only loved dogs since childhood, but recognized their potential. She grew up in Missoula with childhood pets that included a rescued raccoon and her brother’s owl. When she was 10 years old, her father gave her a Shetland sheepdog named Brandy. Parker quickly realized that if she was going to keep him, he needed a job. She began to train him in obedience.
This childhood experience prepared Parker for a realization she came to many years later. After completing her master’s degree in ecology, she got a job collecting and analyzing wolf droppings in Yellowstone National Park. When she faced the challenges of locating samples in a timely and non-invasive manner across a large area, the thought occurred to her: Why not use dogs?
Parker started calling border guards and customs officers trying to find a dog trainer who could answer this question: is there a way to train dogs to find scat, just like a drug dog is trained to find drugs?
“I hung up a lot of people,” says Parker. Eventually, a friend of the New York City police chief contacted Barb Davenport, a trainer who worked for the Department of Corrections in Washington state. With Davenport’s help, Parker trained her first scat detection dogs.
Soon after, she teamed up with three other women (a geneticist, a taxonomist, and a veterinarian) and began using dogs for environmental research. In 2000 they started Working Dogs for Conservation. Although many biologists learned to watch their own dogs behave in the field, Parker and her co-founders were some of the first to use dogs more purposefully, says Pete Coppolillo, the current director of Working Dogs for Conservation.
“Megan will try anything,” says Coppolillo.
After starting Working Dogs, Parker earned a PhD in wildlife biology. It was run by the world famous carnivore John “Tico” McNutt; Under his supervision, she studied chemical communication and territoriality between packs of African wild dogs in the Okavango Delta in Botswana.
“The fact that there are now groups of people around the world using sniffer dogs to research and control the international trade in wildlife is an indication of their foresight,” says McNutt.
Dogs are also used to gather vital information about another type of wildlife: invasive species (both underwater and on land). For example, dogs’ noses are so good they can spot seeds before they bloom.
“The idea is that if we can find and stop these satellite populations of invasive species, it will be game changing for the natives [plant] Communities, ”says Parker.
From guard dogs to Indian reservation rescues to ex-police or border patrol dogs, Working Dogs for Conservation takes any dog with a personality that Parker describes as “high-drive”. These are usually the dogs that no one wants because they aren’t great pets. However, their energy and stamina make them perfect for their working dogs job.
To train the dogs, Parker puts a scent sample in a glass, which is then placed in a cinder block. If a dog smells it, it will be rewarded. Parker repeats the process until the dogs await a reward for that smell.
The dogs later learn to search for and find these smells in complex environments. Part of Parker’s job is not only to find, train, and align dogs with projects to help with a study, but also to train the handlers on how to work with the dogs.
Erin Agner, a young Missoula woman who cares for Parker’s dogs and helps her train, says the scientist’s empathy, patience, and big heart have enabled her to understand both humans and animals. “Without working dogs, dogs like Tule would have no place,” says Agner.
When she’s not training a dog or recruiting other dogs for the team, Parker corresponds with her partners in Africa, checking the dogs in each program and sometimes doing virtual dog training via Skype or FaceTime. She also answers inquiries and inquiries from agencies, organizations and researchers looking for dogs for specific tasks.
For several months each year, she visits partner programs in Africa – Zambia, Tanzania, and Botswana – as well as parts of South America to gain insight into partners’ canine-handler bonds, many of which reflect her own. In Zambia she says: “Your care for the dogs is excessive.” The dogs have 24-hour protection and a dog handler voluntarily sleeps with the dogs on the top bunk of the kennel every night.
Parker sits at the kitchen table in her Missoula home and is often interrupted by barks or Tule asking him to play with a toy. Suddenly four of the dogs start barking wildly at the door. Parker seems unimpressed by the cacophony, but Tule, who is easy to rattle, walks up and down. Parker hugs the dog, arms and torso wrapped around Tulle’s body, Tule’s head in his heart, and strokes the dog’s smooth, short coat. Within seconds the house is quiet again and Tule lies down. But she keeps her dark eyes on Parker and is ready to go outside and work right away. Scat expected!
Information on Working Dogs for Conservation can be found at: wd4c.org