A nose for fun
Los Angeles dogs learn how to sniff out treats while awaiting adoption.
May 13, 2013
By Best Friends Staff
Tamika, a white Chihuahua with an underbite and pretty brindle patches, is
spending some time outside her kennel at the Best Friends Pet Adoption
and Spay/Neuter Center in Mission Hills, California. She runs
around the room, circling cardboard boxes that have been carefully
arranged by animal assessment and transport specialist Lauralea Oliver.
There's a piece of cheese inside one of the boxes, and if Tamika can sniff it
out, it's hers.
With careful guidance - but not too much from Lauralea, Tamika eventually
figures out which box hides the prize. Then she has to work up the courage
to reach into the box to claim it, which she does, tail wagging.
Nose work: Fun and stimulating
The activity, called nose work, is a competitive dog sport, Lauralea explains.
She tried it with her own dog several years ago and got hooked on it when
she saw that it was more than just fun - it caused positive changes in her
dog. She's now a certified instructor under the National Association of Canine Scent Work, and has brought those skills to the adoption center to help the dogs. She says, "It's a nice way to break up the routine, give the dogs something different to do. Mentally, a shelter environment is boring for dogs - kennels can be monotonous and stressful if there's not enough to do." Even with lots of walks and love from staff and volunteers, dogs do even better if their minds get to work too. That's where nose work comes in.
Working with shelter dogs
Lauralea has been teaching volunteers how to do nose work with dogs at the adoption center every Tuesday evening,
which is great fun for them and the dogs. Volunteers are assigned dogs and get instruction from Lauralea to ensure
they're going about it the right way, and they're encouraged to take their dogs out for a little nose work as often as
possible. During classes, dogs are worked individually; the task and the prize are theirs alone.
Lauralea explains, "I put out several boxes and only one has food in it. The goal is to keep them stimulated, growing and to
keep the search challenging without making it so difficult that they give up." It's a puzzle for dogs to figure out. The puzzles
start out easy, which "gives them a nice sense of accomplishment," Lauralea explains. Once they figure out the easy
puzzles, she can start to make the food more difficult to find by closing boxes all the way, stacking them or elevating them.
"It's a mentally strenuous activity, so they get a lot more out of it on an emotional mental level by using a different part of
their brain that they haven't used all day. It relaxes them and builds confidence."
To watch Tamika in action, one might think that the last thing she needs is more confidence. Lauralea says, "She can be a
bit snarky. She also thinks she's a Rottweiler." But behind all that bravado, she believes the Chihuahua is most likely
nervous, and that's why she sometimes acts out. "I think this could help her be more at ease, build her confidence. She
was nervous about the people in the room in the first session, but she's very focused on the game. She's doing really well."
Helping homeless dogs get adopted
It could be especially helpful for Tamika to have an edge. There are more Chihuahuas in Los Angeles
shelters than any other breed except pit bull terriers. The hope is that new skills, confidence and a more
relaxed attitude in life will help all the dogs using their noses in class find homes faster.
Including Tamika. In the meantime, she'll keep having fun and increasing her skills following her nose.
Photos by Erin Fell
November 22, 2016
Feature Story: Wildlife Scent Detection Dog Leads the Search for Elusive, Endangered Morro Bay Kangaroo Rat in San Luis Obispo County
Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office
Last documented in 1986, the federally endangered Morro bay kangaroo rat has eluded biologists for more
than three decades. While some in the conservation community believe this tiny native mammal may have
gone the way of the dodo, two local biologists have reason to believe that a few isolated colonies may still
exist in the remaining patches of coastal dune scrub along California’s central coast near Los Osos in San
Luis Obispo County. From 1990 to 2015, biologists saw potential signs of the Morro Bay kangaroo rat in the
parkland around Los Osos. However, none have been captured following multiple surveying and trapping
efforts. So does the tiny Morro Bay kangaroo rat still exist?
Possibly, say Dr. Chris Kofron of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Dr. Francis Villablanca of California
Polytechnic State University, but if so, then at extremely low density and in only a few isolated colonies. Kofron
and Villablanca have turned to alternative survey methodology to aid in the search for the mysterious,
nocturnal burrowing mammal.
To enhance our chances of finding the Morro Bay kangaroo rat, if it still exists, we combed all of California for a wildlife sniffer dog to lead the field search," said Dr. Chris Kofron.
They ultimately recruited Vector, a Dutch Shepherd scent detection dog trained by H.T. Harvey Ecological Consultants and experienced in sniffing out small mammals and birds. This August, following six months of training, Vector led a field search for the Morro Bay kangaroo rat in San Luis Obispo County.
Lauralea Oliver, a biologist with H.T. Harvey Ecological Consultants, trained Vector to sniff out and detect the Lompoc kangaroo rat, a very closely related kangaroo rat that lives nearby in similar habitat. The Morro Bay kangaroo rat and the Lompoc kangaroo rat are both subspecies of the Hermann's kangaroo rat.
For three long, hot days in August, Vector surveyed areas of Montana de Oro State Park, Morro Bay
State Park, and the Morro Dunes Ecological Reserve, which are among the last documented areas
where the Morro Bay kangaroo rat was sighted more than three decades ago. Vector alerted twice
over the three days, giving the response signal for scent of a kangaroo rat. So now, California State
Parks, which manages the properties where Vector alerted, have installed bait stations with cameras
at the two alert sites to see which small mammals are living there.
"The immediate conservation need is to locate any persisting colonies of the Morro Bay kangaroo rat,
if it still exists," said Dr. Villablanca. The Morro Bay kangaroo rat is the only type of kangaroo rat in
Los Osos and the conservation community is anxiously awaiting the outcome of this last best effort
to find the elusive animal.
Endemic to the vicinity of Los Osos in western San Luis Obispo County, the Morro bay kangaroo rat
was listed as federally endangered in 1970 due to loss of habitat from residential and commercial
development, and due to increases in vegetation density from the absence of fire.
This project is a special partnership of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, H.T. Harvey Ecological Consultants,
California Polytechnic State University, and California State Parks.