Sniffing Around the Globe: Rogue Detection Teams
One of the newest conservation dog organizations out there is Rogue Detection Teams, but that doesn't mean they are new to the industry. Rogue Detection Teams was established in 2019, merging their staff’s decades of industry experience into one trail-blazing organization. They travel the world working with rescued canines, driven to conserve wildlife and wild spaces. Conservation efforts no doubt benefit from their collaborative and big-picture approach to data collection!
This crew of passionate bounders (canine handlers) and their dogs are some of the most incredible people you could ever speak with about the work a conservation dog can do. In fact, although Jennifer Hartman has taken the lead during this interview, nearly all of their team wanted to chat with us. Grab your cuppa tea, and get ready for a trip around the world with Rogue Detection Teams!
Where in the world do you work?
Our bounders (that's our word for handlers) and detection dogs have worked all across North America, from British Columbia, Alaska, and throughout the lower 48. Most of our projects tend to be in the west, in states such as California, Oregon and Washington, but we’ve worked everywhere from the south, southeast, midwest and northeast of the US as well.
Our work also takes us all over the world. For example, one of our instructors, Heath Smith, has worked in countries such as Turkey and Brazil and advised teams in Spain and France. My dog Scooby and I have worked in Africa (in Mozambique and South Africa on big cat projects), in southeast Asia (in Cambodia, Nepal, and Vietnam, the latter with bounder, Suzie Marlow, on big cat and pangolin projects) as well as in Canada (in British Columbia and Alberta on everything from western toad to wolf and caribou). Our Portuguese bounder, Rita Santos and her detection dog, Hera, has worked across Europe (in France on sea turtles and grasshoppers, Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal) as well as in Malaysia. Wherever the work takes us, we go!
Tell us a bit about the working dogs you work with. How many dogs are on your team, and do they have any specialties?
We work with dogs that we adopt from shelters or directly from families. Our dogs are typically considered unadoptable due to their high energy and obsessive desire to play fetch. This obsessive energy is quite perfect for us because we pair this with detecting an odor and reward our dogs with their ball for locating the odor. It’s a win-win for both us and our dogs. Because we look in shelters, most of our dogs tend to be mixes and mutts of all shapes and sizes. We have quite a few labrador mixes as well as heeler mixes because these seem to be high drive dogs that end up in shelters, but we also have a chihuahua mix and what might be a papillon mix in our program. We love all dogs though, and don’t discriminate as long as they like to play fetch!
Currently, we have 19 dogs in our program, although a few of them are nearing or are in retirement. When they do retire, they retire with our bounders. While our dogs can and have specialized on locating a single species or odor, we encourage researchers who hire us to adopt a wider perspective on the species they would like to locate. For example, in the past we had species-specific dogs such as “fisher only” dogs, or “big cat” dogs but we felt that was limiting the strength of the detection dog method as well as precious conservation dollars. As such, in recent years we’ve suggested to many of our projects that they consider a multi-species outlook in which we search for and collect multiple species on any given survey. We have had projects in which we are collecting nine different species simultaneously! If a researcher’s goal is Sierra Nevada red fox locations, by simultaneously collecting scats from marten, cougars, bobcats and coyotes the researcher receives a larger picture of what is occurring on the landscape. Is the coyote out-competing the red fox? Is the marten a competitor? Who is predating the red fox? What is the red foxes main diet? All these questions and more can be answered from collecting multiple species.
That being said, if a project wants us to specialize we can, such as locating an invasive species, animal, or toxin! If this is the case, we will opt to utilize the dogs in our program who like to conduct detail work, as we call it. Then it is actually our bounders who specialize. For example, we have a dog Jack, a blue heeler mix who works frequently with bounder, Collette Yee on our bat hibernacula projects because she has the most experience with this species than other bounders; enhancing her ability to assist Jack in locating this tiny target in the field. We have a few bounders who specialize in Humboldt marten surveys, as well, so while we can place any dog on these projects (after we introduce them to the odor), we like to send the same bounders.
What is your professional background and how did you get into working with dogs?
Our backgrounds vary. Many people come to us thinking that they need to have a strong background in dog training or biology and while both can help, it’s not the only thing we look for. In fact, my background is in English Literature. Surprisingly, or maybe not, considering how much we tend to write (reports, developing materials, assisting publications, ect) this background is very useful as communication and outreach are very much a part of our work.
Our other bounders have backgrounds in wildlife science or ecology and we find that this helps provide the foundation needed to appreciate much of our work. Experience conducting field work in various habitats and environments is one of the things that we look for. In fact, many of our bounders had never worked with dogs before starting with us. In some ways, this is helpful because of our unique training methodology and philosophy. We encourage and foster our dogs’ innate curiosity to roam, sniff, wander and explore, while providing them with the boundaries they require to be safe, happy and confident in the field. Most of our work is conducted off-leash, allowing the dog the freedom to follow odor profiles to the source. We like to think that we are teaching our bounders and dogs to become a team, a team that will work, communicate, and who, ultimately will respect one another on equal footing.
I personally found my way into the detection dog field in a roundabout way, through volunteering with the Student Conservation Society. I took an internship researching the northern spotted owl right out of college. We were tasked with calling (essentially hooting) for spotted owls and rushing into the woods, sometimes at breakneck speeds, to locate the owl before it stopped responding. We’d then stay with the owl for sometimes up to 16 hours, observing their behavior and collecting their scat. Scat analysis would help determine if the owl was stressed, breeding, and other various factors. Much like going to the doctor and giving a blood sample, collecting scat from wildlife can provide a unique window into each animal’s health, diet, sex and reproductive status.
After three years, the project was coming to a close but I was desperate to pursue any research opportunity there was to study the spotted owl, as I was passionate about their conservation. I trained as a detection dog bounder to determine if maybe dogs would be more efficient in locating signs of owls. That’s basically when I met Max, my now 16 year old blue heeler mix. I fell in love instantly (and I like to think that Max did too). He’d follow me around like my little shadow. He was shy at first, and some people said he wouldn’t make it as a detection dog because he stuck too close. But I knew he was perfect. Through our time together, what emerged was a rambunctious, spirited, and curious detection dog and my career as a spotted owl biologist got derailed so that I could work with Max. From grizzly bears in Montana, tigers in Cambodia, lynx along the Canadian border, and even a stint on a research boat conducting killer whale research, Max and I were inseparable. During this time I also started working with a few other dogs, namely Scooby, my now retired 16 year old black lab mix. He and I have been to Africa together, to survey for big cats and most recently to British Columbia, sniffing for storm petrel burrows. Max and Scooby still locate spotted owl pellets, but my career is no longer specialized to one species! I have Max, Scooby and all the other detection dogs that I have worked with to thank for that.
What is one wow-factor thing you like to share with people about your work?
I think most people are excited that we adopt shelter dogs. They love the rescue-turned-wildlife-hero aspect of our work. We love it too, but what we’re most wowed by internally is the “team” aspect of our work. If you think about it, we’re working to communicate with another species towards a mutual goal: wildlife conservation through detection of data. To me that’s pretty astounding. Humans and dogs have co-evolved to work together but how amazing is it that we can take a dog into the great unknown, ask them to help us find a particularly rare species, and they not only do this with gusto, but they sometimes detect data in the thousands?! I’ve been doing this work for 13 going on 14 years and I am still constantly amazed at the concept. Dogs are just so incredible.
Have you ever had an interesting wildlife experience in the field that you just can’t forget?
While our work is noninvasive, meaning we never have to see, capture, dart, or collar our study species to collect the data that we do, we sometimes encounter wildlife while out working. Our dogs aren’t interested because their main goal is to find the odor to get their ball. That being said, we’ve seen many a bear, moose or bobcat in our wanderings (and it’s the moose we’re most worried about!).
Bounder Justin Broderick and Will Chrisman had an elk run through a remote camp they had set up, followed closely by a Mexican wolf who was chasing it down! Suzie Marlow came across tiger pug marks on a survey in Nepal and her dog, Skye, found a live pangolin in a tree (they were looking for scat but guess the pangolin was stinky enough). I have lived in bush camps where hyena prints circled my tent upon waking the next morning, hippos and elephants wandered through camp and once, I was having a snack under a shady tree when a honey badger wandered by. Collette Yee had an orca surface the water next to the research boat she was working on and blow orca snot all over her (and she still tried to collect it for genetic analysis, that’s how gung ho we are for data)!
We cherish these “encounters” but never approach the wildlife. In fact, some of our favorite “encounters” are when we hear wolves howling on an early morning survey, wake up in our field house to the calls of loons, stop in wonder to appreciate elk bugling across a far ridge, or listen in on an underwater microphone to orcas calling to one another. It’s also pretty swell when we find out through genetic results the species of the scats we’ve collected! (It’s like Christmas when we learn results!).
What advice do you have for people interested in entering the conservation dog field?
Interestingly, our advice can sometimes sound like a caveat. It’s important to us that the folks who enter into this field, at least with our program, think carefully about whether or not this field is the right fit for them. While it may sound amazing (and it is) to wander in the backcountry with your four legged best friend/coworker, the job is hard, tough, gritty work and not for the faint of heart. This field is less of a job, and more of a lifestyle. While the surveys might end after 7 or 8 hours of hiking, whether this be in snow, rain, heat, up and down mountains or through thick vegetation, the day’s work is still not complete. There are always our dogs’ wellbeing to think about in addition to data to download, samples to preserve, campsites to set up or logistics to figure out to be ready to go out again the next day. We live most of the year out of our rigs, traveling from one project to the next and this can take its toll on even the hardiest of souls. Many projects do not get funded and we are constantly wondering when or if we’ll have enough work, which can be an additional source of worry or concern, too. The people who eventually leave this field do so in search of calmer and more routine-driven work, as the one constant in our field is change.
What is one piece of equipment you never go to work without?
Our dogs (haha!). But seriously, the ball. Some of our dogs will play with anything, be it a stick, or a pinecone. But some will only play with their ball and if we forget this, then game over.
Of course we also could not do this work without our GPS units, water, great hiking shoes and sample collection gear!
What is your dog’s favorite reward?
All of our dogs are toy driven and love to play fetch with balls of any kind. I mainly work with three dogs, two of whom are now retired. Scooby, my black lab mix who is 16 is currently favoring the jolly ball, a large and hard-shelled ball that he herds around the yard with his nose and barks at. It’s a great low-impact toy for him to chase in his older years.
Filson, my newest recruit, is a 4 year old blue heeler mix who loves his Huckama or Knot-a-rock, two balls made by our dog gear partner, Ruffwear. Both toys are large enough in his tiny mouth that he gnaws on them while I collect the samples, which is handy.
Max, my 16 year old retired blue heeler mix, loves the Turn-up, another Ruffwear toy. It’s smaller and no matter how gently I toss it to him, he bounces it off of his nose or pushes it out of his mouth so that he can chase it some more. This has made for some hair-raising rewards, especially if we’re working in steep areas. I’ve learned to just hand the ball over to my dogs, like putting a pacifier in their mouths. This is still exciting enough to them which suits me just fine!
Learn more about Rogue Detection Teams and follow them along on their sniffing adventures: