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Orca helpers deploy dogs to sniff out whale poop in Puget Sound

J50 with sister J42 on July 21, 2018. (Photo by Katy Foster/NOAA Fisheries)

It’s certainly one of the more unique jobs a dog can get, but their ability to sniff out orca scat is often central in assessing the health of ailing whales. Authorities plan to use this method in the urgent case of J50, the young orca struggling to survive in Puget Sound.

“Our dogs have been trained to sniff out orca poop and they will travel along behind her and hope that she does her business in the water,” Jenny Atkinson from the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor told Ron and Don. “Then they’ll scoop it up with a net, and do some analysis.”

The method stems from Conservation Canines, a program at the University of Washington which trains dog to sniff out floating orca waste, all for the sake of science. Looking heroic, the dogs will stand at the ship’s bow with their nose over the water and help on-board scientists locate the specimens.

“It is amazing,” Atkinson said. “These dogs get in the wind cone so to speak, and when he gets the scent the dogs go into position. Once they’ve smelled it they do not break concentration until they get there.”

RELATED: There’s still hope to save ailing orca

“The driver just pays attention to the dog and the handler until they get to the poop, and then they collect it up. The dog does a good job, so they get the toy that’s associated with that and go crazy. Then it’s time to get back to work.”

In addition to the orca poop-sniffing method, scientists get a health assessment of the orcas by extending a pole over the top of the orca’s head.

“When she surfaces and exhales, it’ll send up that spray of water that the air causes to come off her blowhole, and capture some of it on a petri dish,” Atkinson said. “That will give them some information about the pathogens that she might be affected by.”

Last year the BBC did a video on Tucker, a black lab scat detector who helped find several hundred fecal samples. Tucker has since retired.

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