By sniffing out invasive insects, highly skilled dogs are on the frontlines of forest conservation.

By Jodi Helmer

Tia running.
Tia running. Credit: Working Dogs for Conservation.

With her nose in the air and tail wagging, Tia moved between a stand of trees, sniffing their trunks. The German shepherd passed countless trees before she stopped and sat. The action alerted her handler, Alice Whitelaw, that she had found an ash tree infested with emerald ash borer.

Tia is one of a trio of dogs trained to detect ash wood or emerald ash borer as part of the invasive species team at Working Dogs for Conservation, a nonprofit organization that puts dogs on the front lines of environmental conservation.

“Seeing the raw potential of the dogs and watching them develop these skills over time is super rewarding,” says Whitelaw, co-founder and director of programs for Working Dogs for Conservation. “I’m amazed at their potential to play an important role in conservation.”

The idea of using dogs for scent detection isn’t new: Law enforcement agencies and the military have long trusted dogs to use their superior sense of smell to locate suspects, drugs and bombs. Working Dogs for Conservation uses the same strategies to train their canine conservationists to sniff out invasive species.

Formed in 2000, the Montana-based organization partners with agencies around the globe to help protect wildlife and wild places by dispatching dog/handler teams in the field.

Over the last 16 years, handlers have traveled across the globe, using dogs to sniff out invasive zebra mussels in Alberta, poached rhino horns in Zambia and brown tree snakes in Guam. In the U.S., the dogs have the potential to save forests by identifying the emerald ash borer (EAB), a destructive beetle that is wreaking havoc on ash trees.

“Combined with all of the other tools we have, dogs are a really good application for a lot of conservation issues, including emerald ash borer,” explains Whitelaw.


Handler Aimee Hurt looks on as Wicket prepares to search a wood pile
Handler Aimee Hurt looks on as Wicket prepares to search a wood pile in Minnesota. Credit: Working Dogs for Conservation.

Native to Asia, emerald ash borer arrived in the U.S. around 2002 via shipping crates containing infested ash wood. The insects lay their eggs on the bark of ash trees; as the larvae emerge and bore under the bark, they cut off the flow of water and nutrients, killing the trees.

To date, emerald ash borers, which have no natural predators in the U.S., have spread to more than 20 states and threaten to kill most of the nearly nine billion ash trees found in North America — and the problem continues to escalate. New research indicates that the invasive beetles have started attacking white fringetree, a native tree that grows wild throughout most of the country. By 2019, it’s estimated the emerald ash borer will have caused $10 billion in damage.

“Emerald ash borer is hard to find and that makes it easier to spread,” notes Mark Abrahamson, entomologist and lead scientist for emerald ash borer with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

Although insecticide is effective for killing the invasive insects and saving trees, the number of infestations and wide swaths of infected trees in Minnesota forests makes it impossible for rangers to keep up with infestation identification. For infested trees that go untreated, Abrahamson notes, “emerald ash borer is 100 percent lethal.”

In Minnesota, emerald ash borer spread from four counties in 2012 to 12 counties (and counting) in 2016.

After learning about the successes Working Dogs for Conservation had using dogs to sniff out other invasive species, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture reached out to the nonprofit in 2012 to see if the dogs could help with their emerald ash borer infestation. The hope: The dogs could help identify infestations that might go unnoticed and help the state get a jump on treatment.

“Our current inspections are visual and, with ground-up stuff, it’s impossible to detect,” Abrahamson says. “The idea of bringing in the dogs was to improve detection and help prevent the spread of emerald ash borer because we have too many colonies to effectively deal with on our own.”


Working Dogs for Conservation trained three dogs for the project: Tia, a German shepherd that has worked on several projects, including rosy wolf snail detection in Hawaii; Lily, a yellow Labrador trained to detect quagga mussels and white-footed vole scat; and Wicket, a black Labrador mix that recognizes 26 scents, including Chinese moon bear scat.

Tia and Lily were trained to detect emerald ash borer infestation while Wicket learned to sniff out ash trees and wood. (Abrahamson notes that identifying ash wood — in a pile of firewood or mulch — can help prevent infested wood from being moved into emerald ash borer-free areas, reducing the risk of new infestations).

Working Dogs for Conservation devotes significant efforts to finding and training their conservation dogs. Their handlers rotate the dogs between projects depending on the needs; when new invasive species projects come up, like the emerald ash borer work, the dogs are trained to detect new scents. As the need for dogs increases, Working Dogs for Conservation continues expanding its canine conservation team. And, while a few dogs come from breeders who specialize in breeding working dogs, most of the dogs come from shelters where families have surrendered them for being too wild.

“These dogs have a high drive that makes them great working dogs but not great pets,” Whitelaw explains.

Alice Whitelaw, co-founder of Working Dogs for Conservation, training Tia
Alice Whitelaw, co-founder of Working Dogs for Conservation, training Tia. Credit: Working Dogs for Conservation.

The organization has relationships with shelters that understand what kinds of dogs excel at field work; the shelters contact Working Dogs for Conservation when a dog that seems to fit the criteria comes through their doors. Still, trainers can meet 300 dogs before finding just one that has the drive to succeed as working dogs; of the dogs that are chosen for training, about 50 percent fail and are dropped from the program.

The dogs that succeed are evaluated and placed on jobs that fit with their skills and personalities.

“Not every dog is good at every job,” Whitelaw explains. “Knowing what we know about how detailed the project is going to be and knowing the dogs’ skills, we decide who we’re going to put on the project.”

Currently, there are 17 trained with Working Dogs for Conservation working on various projects across the globe, and the organization is looking to add a few more conservation canines to their team.

Of the nine U.S.-based dogs, Whitelaw chose Tia, Lily and Wicket for their abilities to handle detailed work like searching a brush pile for a piece of ash wood or finding an infested tree in a forest. After several weeks of training, the trio traveled to Minnesota to put their new scent skills to work.

Funding from the Farm Bill covered the cost of the pilot project. During a two-month period in 2012, Whitelaw, along with Working Dogs for Conservation co-founder and dog handler Aimee Hurt, worked alongside Tia, Lily and Wicket to test their skills in the field and search for emerald ash borer infestations in Minnesota.

During the project, the dogs excelled in identifying ash wood and infested wood in firewood facilities, compost facilities and parks in multiple counties. During timed trials against experienced Minnesota Department of Agriculture staff, the dogs proved more accurate than their human competitors.

“We were faster but not as thorough and it was easier for us to be fooled and miss a piece,” says Abrahamson.

Although their skills in the brush piles proved superior, Whitelaw admits that the dogs are not perfect at locating infested trees.

“The infestation needs to be low enough on the trunk for dogs to get the scent,” she explains. “So, for new infestations that are higher up in the trees, the dogs are not as accurate.”

Even so, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture recognized the possibilities for using the dogs’ superior scent skills to assist with emerald ash borer detection and treatment.

At the end of the pilot project, the team recommended employing a detection dog/handler team (trained by Working Dogs for Conservation) to inspect firewood facilities, county brush piles and wood products producers to prevent the movement of infested wood into non-infested counties or partnering with Working Dogs for Conservation to perform frequent seasonal inspections.

“Emerald ash borer doesn’t move quickly unless we help it,” says Whitelaw.

In forests, Abrahamson believes the dogs could be useful to detect new areas of emerald ash borer infestation, helping forest managers by pinpointing what trees are infested and need treatment.

Although there was a lot of excitement about the project, securing funding proved difficult and the project was discontinued.

“It was unfortunate that their funding fell through because they were great partners and we saw a lot of potential,” says Whitelaw.

Despite the disappointment, it wasn’t long before Tia, Lily and Wicket were called back to work.


Lily does a thorough search of a brush pile in the hopes of finding infested ash wood.
Lily does a thorough search of a brush pile in the hopes of finding infested ash wood. Credit: Working Dogs for Conservation.

Working Dogs for Conservation received calls from other states interested in their successes using dogs to find ash wood and emerald ash borer, including Texas Parks and Wildlife.

Laura Speight, a wildlife biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife, had heard about the Minnesota project and invited the nonprofit to help with emerald ash borer-related outreach and education in Texas.

Although Texas doesn’t have a problem with emerald ash borer — yet — forests in neighboring states, including Arkansas and Louisiana, have recorded infestations of the invasive insects. Speight hopes that being proactive could help keep emerald ash borer from crossing the border into the Lone Star State.

“It’s hard to explain to the public why they should care about a little beetle,” she says. “If it comes to Texas, we know it’s going to be tough to stop it so we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to bring the dogs to northeast Texas to capture people’s attention and educate them about emerald ash borer?’”

In February, Working Dogs for Conservation traveled to Texas with Wicket and Tia. During the trip, handlers spent three weeks meeting with stakeholders and demonstrating the dogs’ skills.

The canine conservationists got rave reviews from representatives of organizations like Texas A&M Forest Service and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service — and Speight believes the public will respond the same way.

“These dogs know how to work a crowd,” she says. “The public might not remember me talking about emerald ash borer but they are going to remember the dogs; that kind of engagement is the key to invasive species education.”

The dogs were once again the stars of the show when they returned to execute the Texas Parks and Wildlife-created outreach and education plan in May. Staff from Texas Parks and Wildlife and Texas A&M Forest Service visited parks, campgrounds and forests with the dogs and their handlers, asking campers for permission to search firewood. While the dogs searched for ash wood, staff talked to campers about emerald ash borer and their role in preventing its spread.

“Even if campers don’t have ash wood, the search still works because it gives the forest service a chance to talk to people about the issue,” Speight says.

In fact, talking to people about the issue — and their role in preventing the spread of emerald ash borer — might be the key to keeping the invasive insects from crossing the border into the state.

“We’d like not to have emerald ash borer in the state; if that’s not possible, we want to minimize the impact, slow the spread and take action to minimize losses,” says Allen Smith, forest health coordinator for Texas A&M Forest Service. “To make that happen, we’re making a pretty hard effort to educate as many people as we can.”

Like Minnesota, Texas is struggling with the budget for emerald ash borer prevention, especially because no infestations have been recorded. To cover the costs of the project, Speight got creative with funding, using a grant earmarked for other invasive species prevention and rolled emerald ash borer education into the project. The effort, she believes, is worth the investment.

Smith believes education and outreach events (with dogs as the tail-wagging, face-licking representatives for the issue) are essential to maintaining the state’s emerald ash borer-free status.

“The real value of the dog is a conduit to open discussion,” he says. “We can talk to about emerald ash borer and if we find ash or infested wood, we can dispose of it before the beetles have a chance to emerge.”

From Speight’s perspective the dogs’ involvement with the initiative will have a more powerful and longstanding impact on the public’s awareness of such an important environmental issue.

“It’s hard to make people aware of a problem if it’s not on their radar,” Speight says. “The dogs will help us get people’s attention and educate them about how destructive emerald ash borer can be — that awareness can help save trees.”

North Carolina-based journalist Jodi Helmer shares her home with five rescue dogs who can sniff out treats but not much else. Her work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Modern Farmer and Entrepreneur.