Celebrate National Dog Day with the Museum’s Working Dogs

by AMNH on

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Here at the American Museum of Natural History, we are surrounded by dogs—fossil dogs, wild dogs, and even dogs in the Bull Moose Dog Run just outside the Museum—and we couldn’t be happier! But we’re especially proud of the hard-working canines who assist Museum scientists in the field. To mark National Dog Day, allow us to introduce two pooches whose impressive noses help researchers sniff out elusive animals.

Bruiser in the field assisting Museum Postdoctoral Fellow Claudia Wultsch.
© AMNH/C. Wultsch

Claudia Wultsch is a postdoctoral fellow in the Global Felid Genetics Program at the Museum’s Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics. In the field, Wultsch works with Bruiser, a scat detector dog. Dogs like Bruiser are professional sniffer animals, trained to use their sensitive noses to detect scat (yes, that’s poop) samples of potentially endangered wildlife species.

“We use scat samples to obtain DNA of otherwise difficult-to study and elusive wildlife species,” said Wultsch. “DNA obtained from fecal samples help us to genetically study the target species, but also allows us to learn more about the animals' diet and health.”

Dogs are particularly well-suited to these jobs, as their incredibly powerful sense of smell is far  more sensitive than a human’s. The relative ease of training dogs also makes them good partners for scientists working in the field. Scat detector dogs, for instance, can be taught to recognize the scents of multiple species simultaneously. In preparation for a big cat expedition to Bhutan, for instance, Bruiser was trained to detect tiger, leopard, clouded leopard, and snow leopard scat.

Bruiser and Tennis ball
When Bruiser smells the scat of a big cat, he begs for his tennis ball.
© AMNH/C. Wultsch

Detector dogs like Bruiser have a strong, object-oriented play drive towards a toy, which they get as reward after detecting their target scent. “Bruiser loves his tennis ball,” says Wultsch. “He has a special alert upon finding a felid scat—he stares at me, and demands his tennis ball.”

And this dog doesn’t just chase cats. Bruiser has also tracked Javan rhinos in Vietnam, American black bears, fishers and bobcats in Vermont, and bats in New Mexico.

He isn’t the only scat detector dog at the Museum. Linda Gormezano, an ecologist and postdoctoral fellow in the Division of Vertebrate Zoology who studies population dynamics and predator-prey interactions, works with her Dutch shepherd Quinoa to detect polar bear scat. She is particularly interested in the foraging behavior of polar bears during the ice-free period of the year.

Signaling on Scant
Scat detecting dog Quinoa next to a find.
© AMNH/L. Gormezano

“I got [Quinoa] when he was six months old at a kennel in Rhode Island,” Gormezano told Tested.com last year. “His mother was trained for drug detection work and his father for bite work—attacking and holding people. The people who raised Quinoa wanted to train him for bite work but he wasn’t aggressive enough. So I thought he’d be perfect for finding scat because he had a strong play drive.”

Dog sniffs ice floe.
Quinoa, a Dutch shepherd, sniffs for polar bear scat on an ice floe.
©AMNH/L. Gormezano

With detecting help from Quinoa, Gormezano and Museum ornithologist Robert Rockwell published a series of papers in 2014 about the changing diets of polar bears in response to melting sea ice. Quinoa didn’t get a co-author credit, but he did get to play a lot of ball.

Airborne Reward Ball
After a successful find, Quinoa is rewarded with a round of playing ball.
© AMNH/L. Gormezano

Dogs such as Bruiser and Quinoa are not just pets or companions. “Detector dogs are an incredible help for biologists in the field,” Wultsch notes. “These dogs help scientists detect even the smallest fragments of fecal samples and cover larger areas, faster and more accurately.”