Seamus, true to his nature, needs a job. Being idle gets him into trouble. It’s a trait common to most border collies. Fortunately, he has two occupations. From October through May, he can be found protecting San Joaquin kit foxes and blunt-nosed leopard lizards in the San Joaquin Valley in California, and from May to October, he’s back in Montana, where he’s originally from, sniffing out the invasive weed Dyer’s woad near Missoula.
“When he’s working he’s calm and focused,” said Deborah Woollett, PhD, director of Conservation at Working Dogs for Conservation (WD4C), the nonprofit that trains “bad” dogs to protect the environment. Woollett and her colleagues use the term “bad” to describe dogs that don’t make good pets.
Seamus was purchased from a breeder as a puppy. The toddler in the family roughhoused. He jumped on Seamus’ back, and Seamus turned and bit him. “It was his way of saying, ‘Ow, back off,’” Woollett said. “While this was a one-time incident, the family thought that Seamus might not be the best dog for their child to grow up with.”
They took Seamus to Heart of the Valley Animal Shelter in Bozeman, MT. It was there that a shelter worker called WD4C to alert them about Seamus. “It’s a good thing, too,” said Woollett. “Because Seamus is so cute, he would be adopted again. Unfortunately, because he’s so smart and unruly, he would be returned to the animal shelter. It’s a cycle that happens to a lot of dogs.”
“Boredom gets high-energy smart dogs into trouble. That’s why we channel that energy into a job, which in our case is detection work.” Seamus is trained in three scents: the scats of the San Joaquin kit fox and blunt-nosed leopard lizard and Dyer’s woad.
“When a dog with this much energy has a purpose, he’s a happy dog,” said Woollett, who sees his exuberance each time she takes out his ball and plays with him. “That’s his reward and he responds by joyfully prancing around.”
Out on the trail at 5 a.m. in the San Joaquin Valley before the sun and temperature rises, he sniffs the air around him looking for kit fox and blunt-nosed leopard lizard scats. “When he finds them, he’s so proud,” Woollett said. “He has this look that says, ‘Look at me. Look what I found for you.’”
By noon, their work is done because heat interferes with detection work. “On the landscape, the heat can actually push down the scent of scats, making them harder to detect,” said Woollett. “Also when a dog is hotter, they pant and panting can interfere with scent work.”
Seamus and Woollett don’t have to encounter kit foxes or blunt-nosed leopard lizards to know they are in a particular area. The DNA collected from scats tells Woollett when these animals are present, their population sizes, their movement, and habitat preferences.
“Both animals are at risk of extinction,” she said. “They play an important role in the environment. By protecting them, we are protecting their habitat and all the animals and plants that reside in that habitat. They eat other animals and disperse pollinating seeds. When a species goes missing, it throws our ecosystem out of balance.”
Kit foxes get more attention than the leopard lizards. “They are about as cute as they come,” said Pete Coppolillo, executive director of WD4C. “Blunt-nosed leopard lizards are cool too; if you’re into lizards. These lizards are sensitive to climate change. They hide in a bush called Mormon Tea to stay cooler.”
So while Seamus is searching for these lizards, Woollett observes and collects information about other species—both animals and plants. “Mormon tea bushes may be allowing leopard lizards to survive,” said Coppolillo. “When we look at a species, we learn which habitats to protect and how to protect those habitats.”
When Seamus spots the scats of the kit fox or blunt-nosed leopard lizard, he lies down to alert Woollett. That’s when she produces his ball for a few minutes of play before they get back to more air scenting. She doesn’t use the word tracking because as Woollett explained, “Seamus is sniffing the air around him for the specific scent. He can detect kit fox scats from as far away as 38 meters.”
According to Coppolillo, “A dog’s sense of smell is far more developed than we can even imagine. Scientists talk about olfactory receptors, and concentrations, and parts per billion, but to put all that in perspective, think about it this way: a dog can detect a teaspoon of sugar dissolved in a million gallons of water—that’s two Olympic swimming pools.”
Seamus has about two more months of work in CA before heading back to MT. While he’s in CA, he lives with Woollett and her family. When he’s in MT, he resides at the home of his other handler.
In Montana, his work may soon be coming to a close because last year he almost eradicated the weed from Mount Sentinel. Dyer’s woad was originally brought here from Europe to dye fabrics. Each plant produces between 400 and up to 10,000 seeds.
What makes this weed a nuisance is that it grows so rapidly and pushes out native plants that local wildlife depend on for food and shelter. Without native plants, local wildlife relocates to different habitats where they can encounter other predators and prey.
“Humans weren’t achieving full success in eradicating the plant,” Coppolillo said. “Seamus locates extremely tiny rosettes in thick landscapes. Just 2% of plants are now found in the reproductive stage, where in previous years up to 92% were found flowering or seeding when it was only human searchers. Thanks to Seamus, we are closer than ever in achieving full eradication.”