Dogs help prevent more invasive species from entering Canadian waterways

Hilo sniffing for zebra mussels

The government has tried a number of tactics to combat invasive species entering Canadian waterways, but the latest involves a pair of dogs.

Hilo and Diesel are two members of Alberta’s Conservation K-9 Unit. These dogs spend their days sniffing for foreign aquatic species that might be hitchhiking over the border by attaching themselves to boats.

“We realize that only by working together can we protect our water, and we are very proud to be able to help bring the Conservation K-9 program to fruition,” Bob Chrumka, the chairman of the Eastern Irrigation District, told CBC News. He also noted that the significance of these dogs’ work shouldn’t be underestimated.

More than 180 foreign species have invaded the Great Lakes in the past century, many of which have had devastating impacts on ecosystems. If invasive species take hold of Alberta’s waterways, reports say that managing them could cost the province as much as $75 million per year.

These harmful creatures can degrade natural habitats by out-competing native species and effectively altering food chains. They’re also known to reproduce quickly, and some, like zebra and quagga mussels, can live out of water for more than 30 days. This makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to eradicate them once they establish a population, which is why prevention is key.

There are programs in place to deal with ocean-going ships entering Canada’s waterways, which have proved fairly successful. But invasive species can be unintentionally spread through other methods, like attaching to fishing equipment or the hulls of recreational boats that haven’t been cleaned properly.

And that’s where the dogs come in. They work along the boat’s waterline where the mussels can be hidden, and if they detect a specific odour they’ve been trained to find, they’ll display a passive alert. That’s when their handlers will ask them to pinpoint the spot with their noses.

Photo by Alberta Environment and Parks

They’re not only faster and more efficient than human inspectors, but according to the Vancouver Sun, they can detect the scent from an invasive mussel that’s smaller than a grain of rice. They even wear booties to avoid leaving paw prints or scratching paint off the boats.

Photo by Alberta Environment and Parks

It’s a simple but seemingly effective method. According to CBC News, the dogs inspected a total of 667 boats in 2015, and managed to sniff out 11 boats harbouring the harmful creatures.

“Together, we have made the Conservation K-9 Program not only a reality, but an extraordinary success,” Cindy Sawchuk, the operations lead for the invasive aquatic species, told CBC.

But the program is as good for the pups as it is for the province. The K-9 Conservation program actively seeks out high-energy dogs, many of which come from shelters or rescue agencies. So while these dogs may have been overlooked as suitable pets, they’re now a vital part of conservation in the province of Alberta.

Not bad for a couple of rambunctious canines.