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Working Dogs Protecting Wildlife: An Interview With Working Dogs for Conservation

We are always astounded at the variety of jobs that dogs are able to do. The canines at Working Dogs for Conservation (WD4C) are no exception. WD4C trains scent detection dogs to help researchers monitor the health of wildlife, catch poachers, find contraband such as guns and ammunition, find invasive species and more. We caught up with Pete Coppolillo, the Executive Director of WD4C to learn more about how they are changing the world and how you can help.

Dog standing in a field at sundown

What does Working Dogs for Conservation do?

As the world’s leading conservation detection dog organization, WD4C channels dogs’ strong sense of smell in order to protect wildlife and aid in conservation efforts. Pete explained that in the past, wildlife were monitored by catching animals, which is not only very expensive, but also inefficient. However, this all changed when they realized that fecal matter (scats) left over from the species could provide important insights into the current condition of these animals. According to Pete dogs are really good at this task because it’s, “an evolutionary way that carnivores leave messages to other carnivores.” He explains that, “nowadays we can tell individuals apart, who they are related to and we can uncover all sorts of other things from scats like hormones, stress hormones, reproductive hormones. We can tell if they’re breeding or not, if they’re stressed out and even their diets or diseases. So, the value, the amount of information you can get from a scat, just keeps going up and up because the lab techniques are so good.”

Currently, along with sniffing out scats, WD4C also assists with anti-poaching initiatives, using trained dogs to locate poaching contraband, such as guns and ammunition, aids in finding invasive species in waterways and natural areas, as well as works to protect endangered and diseased wildlife. Committed to continual innovation, WD4C is always exploring new areas where dogs can work to make a difference. The possibilities are endless.

A founder with a conservation dog working in the field

How was the organization started?

WD4C was started by four women co-founders who, “were all wildlife biologists, people who had experience working with dogs and all of them were working on species, mostly carnivores that were hard to work with, hard to monitor, hard to count”, explains Pete. After realizing the value of using dogs to aid in wildlife and conservation efforts, they decided to start WD4C which now in its twentieth year works in approximately twenty-five countries, on thirty-nine projects.

Conservation dog running through the water for training


What is Rescues2theRescue?

WD4C in collaboration with The International Fund for Animal Welfare, created Rescues2theRescue in order to place high-energy shelter dogs, in meaningful work and homes. Pete said that, “although these dogs are hard to place in traditional homes, their energy is extremely valuable to conservation detection, making it a win-win for both the dogs and WD4C.”

According to Pete and the video on the Rescues2theRescue website there are many characteristics that Rescues2theRescue look for in conservation dogs. First, these dogs are usually one to two years of age and possess extreme toy drive. The reason why this is valuable is because an obsession for toys can be used as a reward when training a dog to perform certain tasks.

Conservation dogs are in most cases often medium in size. Pete explained that, “field dogs have to be large enough to be able to run in the field, jump over logs and stuff like that, but we try to keep them small enough that if their handlers carry them out if they get hurt or something like that.”

A conservation dog and handler on elephant back The best conservation dogs also aren’t easily scared. Pete mentioned in our interview that, “we take them on airplanes, boats and we’ve even had to move dogs around on elephant back and so they need to be able to tolerate all that crazy stuff going around on them.”

Even after screening thousands of dogs and the perfect candidate has been found, the dogs don’t immediately jump into conservation work. Using reward-based training (the reward being as mentioned above a favourite toy), they introduce them to different scents and techniques that will be valuable in the field. Although this may seem like hard work, Pete assured us- that training a conservation dog is a lifelong process, made even more effective when they are excited and having fun. The welfare of the dog is always considered through the use of positive training methods.

Where do the dogs live?

In the US, all of the dogs live with their handlers. However, it is a different for the dogs in Africa, who for safety reasons live in the ranger’s posts. But no matter where they live, dogs are always surrounded by people, with each dog having a specific handler with who they can build a really strong relationship. Pete said a connection between a dog and their handler is really important because, “it makes them better teams because the more they understand each other, the more tightly they can work together.”


How do you know when a dog is ready to retire?

Although conservation dogs don’t have a hard-stop retirement date, as they get older WD4C keeps their brain active, while slowing down the amount of physically taxing work. Pete said that the, “older experienced dogs are really good at problem solving and figuring stuff out, so we tend to give them more difficult problems and detailed work. Then it is the younger ones that go up in the mountains and find grizzly scat and stuff like that, because that’s physically demanding work.” Even if they reach a point where they can no longer do work, Pete said that they take care of them for the rest of their life. It is evident through talking with Pete, that these dogs are not only valued for the conservation efforts that they provide, but also are a very important part of the WD4C family.

Dog working with his handler in Africa

Where can I learn more and how can I help?

The Working Dogs for Conservation website and its partner site Rescues2theRescue is filled with tons of resources about the organizations very important work. You can also watch this Great Big Story by CNN for more information on the work of WD4C. Follow them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, as well as take time to sign-up for their mailing list.

To help WD4C on their efforts to save the world, donate today or visit this page to find out about others ways to give.


Learn more about voluntary, community-defined training and behavior standards for handlers and their Service Dogs at


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