The olfactory capabilities of our best friends are amazing, and we continually find new ways to put them to work. From hunting and police work to security and disease detection, a dog’s sense of smell keeps us safe and healthy. Now it seems a two-year-old rabbit-hunting beagle from the Ozarks might help zookeepers detect when threatened polar bears are pregnant.
Taking a page from diabetic alert dog trainers, officials at the Cincinnati Zoo's Center for Conservation & Research of Endangered Wildlife have been working with Matt Skogen at Ironheart High Performance Working Dogs in Shawnee, Kan., to train dogs to detect hormonal changes in gestating polar bears so that officials can take necessary precautions with the expectant mothers. Polar bears have complicated reproduction cycles littered with false pregnancies that make captive breeding programs difficult to successfully administer. Early detection gives zookeepers the chance to separate male and female bears, to provide necessary cub-rearing dens and to monitor the mother more closely.
Skogen originally started with the border collie, arguably the most intelligent breed of dog, but a methodical beagle named Elvis eventually won the job. Elvis trained by sniffing fecal matter from bears that were and weren’t pregnant. When the Elvis detected hormonal changes associated with pregnancy, he alerts handlers by sitting. He’s rewarded with food and his favorite squeaky toy. With near-perfect accuracy, Elvis has sniffed dozens of samples from zoo-bound bears from around the country.
Helping scientists and zookeepers assist threatened species propagate is just another example of the wonderful work man’s best friend does for us, and a testament to his amazing scenting abilities.