by Tracy Campion
The snow crunched beneath our boots as we ascended the winding trail, flanked by Douglas Fir and lodgepole pine. The air was sharp, but the sun glinted through the trees, warming our faces. Holly Cook, her husband, Tony, and I hiked up the mountainside sandwiched between several of the Rogue Detection Teams, including Justin Broderick with Winnie, Jennifer Hartman with Scooby, Suzie Marlow with Skye and Zilly, Heath Smith with Chester and Duke, and Collette Yee with Jack and Dio. As we walked, each dog checked in with their human partner, or “bounder,” pausing, or making eye contact, or putting their nose to their human partner’s leg.
As we rounded a turn, we came to an opening in the trees. From here, we could see everything: sky, trees, vast alluvial plain, and the mighty Columbia River stretched out below us, with the Kettle Mountains fanning out far in the distance. We all paused to take in the sight.
The pups and people of the Rogue Detection Teams have circumnavigated the globe, ascending countless hillsides and mountains, most of them far steeper than this one. From Southern California to Southern Africa, from Nepal to Malaysia, and from British Columbia to France, the people who created Rogues have reached some of the world’s most remote ranges, and all in the name of conservation. With more than 65 years of collective experience, the Rogues have searched by land, sea, and air for indications of the world’s most endangered species. Before creating Rogues, Heath Smith, Lead Instructor helped to deploy a total of 251 teams on 152 projects, with 40 dogs recruited and 44 handlers mentored. And their innovative methods have been overwhelmingly successful. The reason behind that? It’s all in their method.
“Part of the passion is the detection dog method,” explained Bounder Jennifer Hartman. “There’s still a lot of hesitation from researchers. It still seems like the outlying method. We’re asked: Why don’t we just use ‘traditional’ methods?” The answer: because detection dog method works.
The Pet Connection team had the opportunity to see just how well detection dogs worked when several of the teams showed us how quickly their dogs could find some scat that had been hidden off-trail. Dog after dog bounded over the hillside, their noses searching eagerly, until they found where the scat had been hidden. Each time, it was within one or two minutes., Impressive, considering this was scat that the dogs had been trained on more than a year earlier, but hadn’t smelled again since. Each time the dogs found scat, they leapt with joy, and then were rewarded with a ball. They raced around the hillside, snow spraying up from beneath their paws as we all laughed. Even working dogs get the zoomies.
While the faces behind the Rogue Detection Teams have been in the field for years, their name is new. The Rogues were officially founded in 2019.
“We decided to break out on our own because we were going to lose the soul that made us who we were,” Jennifer explained. “We have 25 years of making mistakes, and we know what works and what doesn’t. We decided to name ourselves the Rogue Detection Teams because we’re the misfits of the biology world,” Jennifer explained. The Rogue dogs were all rescued from shelters; some of these dogs, like Pip, had been returned to the shelter up to six times before their particular set of skills made them the perfect partners for the human rogues.
“The Rogue dogs tend to be a lot of the working breeds, because of their obsessive, high-energy behavior, but they’re also dogs that don’t look like they’d be working dogs.” Take Beckett, for example: he’s a small, black, fluffy dog, who looks like he’s equal parts Ewok, Teddy Bear, and Papillon. The Rogue Teams also tend to end up with a lot of traditional working dog breeds like black Labs and blue heelers, but many breeds can be detection dogs.
“We’re looking at personality traits. Our selection process isn’t breed-based,” Jennifer said.
“We know that these dogs work; they wouldn’t be as happy in a home. We adopt the misfits. These are ‘bad’ dogs for a good cause. ‘Bad’ because they didn’t thrive in a home environment, but they do thrive in the great outdoors, doing what they love with their people.”
The Rogue Detection Team Dogs
|Alli||Australian Cattle Dog/Mix||15||32lb|
|Chester||Golden Retriever/Lab Mix||16||60lb|
|Dio||Australian Cattle Dog/||7||35lb|
|Duke||Rat Terrier/Chihuahua Mix||7||20lb|
|Filson||Australian Cattle Dog||5||45lb|
|Hiccup||Cattle Dog / Mix||7||47lb|
|Max||Australian Cattle Dog/Mix||14||45lb|
|Nelson||Australian Cattle Dog/Mix||5||38lb|
|Pips||Australian Cattle Dog||10||35lb|
|Zilly||Australian Cattle Dog||9||32lb|
While many of the bounders work primarily with certain dogs, the teams are trained to be interchangeable.
“Even amongst all of these dogs with high prey drive, they still have differences in their communication,” explained Bounder Suzie Marlow. “Being able to work with 15 different dogs, it’s almost like learning different dialects. You see how you communicate with one dog versus how you communicate with another.”
While the dogs might differ in their communication, bounders and canines alike have a shared reputation as misfits. They truly are rogues.
“We’re always outsiders, even within the biology world,” said Jennifer. “The traditional method for tracking animals is using a radio collar or trap, but we use scent detection work to find them.”
The nontraditional approach has yielded extraordinary results; the dogs can detect more than 40 species and counting.
“We’re all family,” Jennifer said. “Part of what makes our method work is our connection with each other. We’re always working overtime, all over the place. We instruct each other; it’s a loop, it’s a feedback.”
The Rogues branched out because they wanted to share science and wildlife conservation with the world.
“Educational outreach is a big component of what we do, and dogs are the perfect vehicle,” Jennifer said.
There are between 100 to 300 Humboldt martens left in the world, and last fall, the Rogues were on the job on the Oregon coast to help locate them and find ways to conserve their dwindling population.
“The Humboldt marten is a really rare animal that needs to be conserved,” Jennifer explained. “Other methods have had some success, but in terms of collecting genetic material specifically, detection dogs are more successful. We discovered that the martens live in both old growth forests and sand dunes, which we hadn’t anticipated.”
Other recent projects have included detecting cougar, bats, tigers, Taylor’s Checkerspot and Silverspot caterpillar frass (they are an endangered butterfly of the PNW), Sierra Nevada red fox in Yosemite National Park, storm petrels in British Columbia, grasshoppers in France, and fishers and marten in Michigan.
The Rogues don’t fit within a certain framework because they’re using a live animal to find other animals.
“They aren’t a machine; we’re constantly learning,” Jennifer said. “How do we get them to go to the right spot where a bat has landed? We can’t do your nice, neat, statistical analysis.”
Many of the team members have been in the field for years. Suzie Marlow and her dog, Skye, have traveled as far as Nepal and Vietnam, where they located pangolins. Justin Broderick, who works with Winnie, has been detecting endangered species for 8 or 9 years.
“We’re looking to grow in 2020,” Jennifer said. Part of that growth includes increased educational outreach.
“We’re going to be hosting classes where people can learn more about behavior work and how to specialize in detection,” explained Suzie. “It’s a dynamic environment, and we’re going to teach them how to deal with that. This is citizen scientist work. Science isn’t just a lab coat; it can be more physical and more engaging. From a feminist point of view, it’s an opportunity to see how women can have diverse roles in science.”
“We have to act now. Conservation doesn’t have that time. We need to band together and work toward communal goals,” Jennifer said.
To learn more about how you can support the Rogue Detection Teams, visit their website here. Follow their adventures on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter at Rogue Detection Team.