Article courtesy of Keith Matheny | Aug 23, 2015 | Detroit Free Press | Shared as Educational Material
ST. JOHNS – The buckets of water were lined up in a row, spaced about 20 feet apart, each taken from a different river or stream in Clinton County. Then up strolled Crush, a perky Jack Russell terrier-Australian Cattle dog mix, on a leash ahead of her trainer, Aryn Hervel.
The dog briefly sniffed each water bucket, lying down alongside most — the signal to her trainer that the bucket was a “hit” for the presence of the substance she’s trained to detect: human waste.
As detection dog jobs go, sniffing out human poop seems far less glamorous than those pooches seeking bombs or drugs in an airport. But Crush and the seven other dogs working for Environmental Canine Services are playing a unique and valuable role for local governments, as detectives helping protect public health and the environment.
Karen and Scott Reynolds, both dog trainers, started their business in 2009 in Lansing. Scott Reynolds also worked as an environmental scientist at the time, and often was tasked with tedious, time-consuming storm water testing for bacteria such as E. coli, which is derived from human waste and can seriously sicken people when they contact or drink it at certain concentrations. It was Scott’s boss who suggested they train a dog to sniff out human waste in rivers, streams or other water, Karen Reynolds said.
The couple tried with one of their dogs, and it worked.
“It’s similar to training any scenting dog — a narcotics dog; a search-and-rescue dog,” she said. “It’s the same principle, just a different scent.”
As word got around about the service, demand grew. Scott Reynolds’ employer wasn’t interested in taking on more such work, so the couple branched out on their own, Karen Reynolds said.
“We’re the only company in the world that does this, that we know of,” she said.
Now based out of their home in Turner, Maine, the company operates waste-detecting dogs there, as well as with the help of handlers and dogs in Lansing and San Francisco. They’ve worked on 75 projects in nine different states and will add two more states to the list with jobs in Vermont and Connecticut next month, Karen Reynolds said.
What the dogs provide to a local government is a time- and money-saving process of elimination, Reynolds said. Agencies such as the Clinton Conservation District may in the past have sent in hundreds of water samples to a laboratory, at a cost of $25 to $50 per sample, to try to narrow down the location of pollution problems. And those bacterial tests often don’t indicate whether the problem is from human or animal waste, she said. Her dogs can do the detection work on the spot; usually first with bucket samples and then heading out into the field, moving up streams and rivers to find the source of a problem, she said. The dogs are trained only to hit on human waste — not animal — she added.
“What might take people several months to track sources, sometimes the dogs can get close to the source in a day,” she said.
The City of Santa Barbara, Calif., was having significant E. coli water contamination problems in 2010 and couldn’t pinpoint a source. Officials called in two of the Reynoldses’ dogs, using a special environmental grant.
Working manhole cover to manhole cover in a shopping mall parking lot, the dog within two hours hit on a spot that ultimately revealed a broken sewer line under the street, leaking next to a storm drain that also was cracked, Karen Reynolds said. The city had the problem fixed within a day, she said.
The company has six working dogs and two in training, which takes about a year for certification.
“The dogs love it — it’s like a puzzle for them to work out,” Hervel said. “For them, it’s a video game.”
Crush came with Hervel from California to Clinton County, because the company’s Lansing-based dogs already had worked in another area recently and are rested at least weekly between jobs. The diminutive Crush is one of the company’s most-traveled dogs because she can fly in an airplane cabin, Reynolds said. They don’t allow their dogs in airplane cargo holds out of concerns for the animals’ safety, she said.
Prior to her adoption by Hervel and training, Crush was returned to the animal shelter three times, Hervel said. Too rambunctious, they said. Always climbing on the furniture. Out of control.
“Nobody wanted her,” she said. “She just needed a job.”
As Clinton County’s water samples were laid out Thursday, a blank sample bucket with distilled water was added to the row. Crush laid down next to each bucket, signifying they had human waste contamination — but passed the blank bucket by after a quick poke in the top of the bucket with her snout.
The hits only signify the yes-or-no presence of human waste bacteria; not whether it’s at levels that prompt health concerns, Karen Reynolds said.
“We’ve been having a lot of conversations with our county commissioners,” said Clinton Conservation District Executive Director John Switzer. “We’re talking about septic systems and septic maintenance and they are saying, ‘Isn’t it all coming from the farms?’ ”
Using Environmental Canine Services, “we’re able to say the human sources are having an impact in our watershed, too.”
The district plans outreach and education efforts in any areas identified by the dogs as having failed septic systems, district watershed coordinator Paige Filice said.
“It’s going to be a lot easier to send out 500 postcards saying, ‘Pump your septic’ than thousands,” she said.
Environmental Canine Services also offers “ship-and-sniff” services, where samples can be mailed to the company for the dogs to check before any on-site services. The Saginaw Chippewa Indian tribe recently utilized the service, enabling them to narrow 30 samples down to seven for more extensive upstream testing, Reynolds said.
All told, Crush “hit” for some level of human sewage contamination on 22 of 25 water containers from district waterways.
“Sorry,” Reynolds said sheepishly to Switzer and Filice.
“Well, we have more work to do, right?” replied Switzer.
“We’re no longer just suspicious,” added Filice.
The company and district officials planned to use the bucket tests to determine where to send Crush out into the field for further testing Friday.