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Dogs sniff out pollution along Great Lakes

Rebecca Thiele

In the town of Bridgman, Mich., investigators Sable and Kenna sniff samples from storm water drains near a beach. Sable is a 10-year-old German Shepherd, while Kenna, a Golden Retriever, is 2.

The dogs have been trained to sniff out polluted water, says Karen Reynolds, co-founder of Environmental Canine Services.

“If they smell any contamination that indicates human source bacteria, then they will give an alert,” Reynolds said. “Sable barks when he smells that and Kenna will sit.”

On Monday, the dogs followed a creek along the railroad tracks. Several area beaches have had problems with pollution and they’re looking for the source.

Peg Kohring, Midwest director of the Conservation Fund, says the dogs find things that people can’t.

“I’ve walked those creeks many times looking, didn’t see anything and then this dog Sable just came and nailed it--found that pipe under all these leaves," Kohring said. "So it’s faster, it’s much cheaper than water sampling. We can go right to the source of the problem.”

Reynolds says regular water testing is still important, however, the dogs can point scientists in the right direction--especially when there are two storm drains.

“So traditional methods we would have had to grab a sample from both, send it to the lab, it would take about 24 hours to get E.coli results back," Reynolds said. "Then you’d have to come back out and start tracing it upstream that way. Now we just did it all in matter of minutes.”

On the trip to Bridgman, Kohring says the dogs found whole sewer lines that had been dissolved by sewer gas. The team also discovered that some sewer lift stations, which pump wastewater, were leaking into nearby creeks.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have approved the use of dogs for past projects in Michigan and Wisconsin, but the method isn’t perfect.

Environmental microbiologist Patricia Holden of the University of California, Santa Barbara conducted a study on the dogs two years ago. Overall, the dogs were accurate, but there were a couple of times they gave an alert and there was no sewage.

Holden says the dogs were also trained to smell detergents, which could have thrown them off.

“It could very well be that that detergent was also in the environment because of other activities unrelated to leaking sewer pipes,” Holden said.

Reynolds started her company in Michigan, but it is now based in Maine. Environmental Canine Services has teams on both coasts as well as in the Midwest. All together they have six dogs.

And they don’t mind the work, she says.

"It’s like any scenting dog that you train, the goal is to make it a game for them where it is the most fun thing that they do," Reynolds said. "They always get a reward of a treat or a squeaky ball or whatever it is. So they love it.”