(Left to right) EcoDogs trainer Jason DeWitt, research fellow Christina Romagosa, doctoral student Melissa Miller and EcoDogs trainer Bart Rogers with detection dogs Ivy and Jake and the giant Burmese python the canines discovered in the Everglades. (Credit: Auburn University)

While some say the environment is going to the dogs, Auburn University is sending dogs to the environment. The Alabama school’s EcoDogs program trains canines to find plant and animal species for ecological research, conservation or eradication.

Recently, the program unleashed dogs in the Florida Everglades to locate Burmese pythons. The non-native snakes, most likely released by irresponsible pet owners, have been wreaking havoc on the fragile ecology there – gobbling up large numbers of native birds and mammals.

The Auburn study found that man’s best friend can be trained to locate these snakes faster and more effectively than when humans try to do the job themselves.

For years, I had been under the assumption that highly trained work dogs like these were the Albert Einsteins of the canine world. But EcoDogs trainer Lucas Epperson says this is not always the case. Instead, the trainers look for dogs that are easily motivated for long periods of time with simple rewards.

EcoDogs trainers let their canine scholars pick the rewards. But being dogs, most opt for a game of fetch or tug-of-war with a ball.

“We don’t need a dog that’s extremely smart,” Epperson explains. “We need a dog that likes the ball. And we can incorporate that in our training. If we take the target odor that we’re looking for and associate that with a reward, then it becomes a game for the dog and it’s just really easy to work with them.”

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