Professional scent detection dogs have been working in various industries for a very long time. While the idea of sniffing for science can be a new concept for some, these incredible canines (and their human counterparts) have also been working to save wildlife for decades! Working Dogs for Conservation is one of the oldest organizations in the field, working around the globe in places from Alaska to Arizona, and Costa Rica to Zambia. They specialize in ending wildlife crimes, stopping invasive species, and monitoring rare species.
Our next chat is with Kayla Fratt, WD4C’s former Communications and Outreach Specialist. She also is the handler of one adorable doggo named Barley and is a fellow Wisconsinite!
Read on and learn more about this incredible, industry leading, organization!
Tell us a bit about the dogs you and your colleagues work with.
We work primarily with rescue and career-change dogs. Because we’re so specific about behavioral characteristics (ball crazy, confident, athletic, tenacious), we don’t get too picky about breed. That said, many of our 35 dogs are labs, shepherds, and border collies. We do have a weimaraner mix and several mutts as well. Most of our dogs are air scenting conservation dogs, but some dogs are cross-trained in tracking as well. Some of our dogs excel at detailed searches (like checking boats for zebra mussels), while others prefer wide-open searches for predator scat on huge landscapes. Many do both well, but we do try to honor their aptitudes when possible.
What is your professional background and how did you get into working with dogs?
I have always been a bit of an animal nut. I grew up showing animals with the 4H club and training homing pigeons. My first job was with the Youth Conservation Corps, helping to restore habitats for at-risk species. In college, I majored in ecology but also took as many learning theory, cognition, and ethology classes as I could. I started working as a dog trainer to pay rent while in college but kept my “academic” focus on field work - banding birds, mist-netting bats, electroshocking fish, conducting plant surveys, and the like. I never really thought I’d be able to work hands-on with animals and work to protect the environment. I spent a few years training aggressive and fearful dogs in Denver at the fourth-largest animal shelter in the country, then was hired by WD4C.
What is one wow-factor thing you like to share with people about your work?
It’s amazing to see how our dogs love the work - and it’s even better knowing that they’re not just playing a fun game (though they might think they are). They’re actually helping save the world!
What does your typical work day look like when at ‘home’?
I wear a lot of hats. My day is usually a mix of preparing education and outreach programs, running social media and website updates, and actually training dogs. Our daily training varies a lot - I might be introducing a dog to a new scent, working to troubleshoot a detection problem, or working on “life skills” like leash walking.
What advice do you have for people interested in entering the conservation dog field?
Get a variety of experiences. My public speaking, ability to speak Spanish, and experience with international travel with a dog all helped me stand out when I was applying for the job with WD4C. It’s a competitive field, so you can’t just be a trainer or just be a biologist if you really want to stand out.
What is one piece of equipment you never go to work without?
If we’re being honest? My cell phone - it’s a safety thing and what would I do without photos? But I also definitely don’t head out without treats and a first aid kit.
What is Barley’s favorite reward?
He LOVES squeaky balls on strings.
What species is Barley trained on? And is he your only canine partner with WD4C?
Barley is trained on red fox, black-footed ferret, zebra mussel, quagga mussel, Dyer’s woad, and a few more this year. He’s my main partner, but we have 35 dogs total! I have worked with Tobias, Jax, Lily, and Tule in the field, and Barley has also worked with a few other handlers.
Learn more about Working Dogs for Conservation and follow them along on their sniffing adventures: