Dogs Detect Wastewater Spills

Canine crews scent human waste to help trace failing wastewater systems.

For thousands of years they have tracked game for humans. Now the humans have something new. Dogs still track with those incredible noses, but they’re tracking threats to human health.

Several years ago Scott Reynolds realized he could use dogs to detect wastewater, and his thought has blossomed into a tool for the quick detection of wastewater system problems. Now, after a few years of training and field experience, his Environmental Canine Services of Vermontville, Mich., is forming a partnership with FB Environmental Associates of Portland, Maine, and Portsmouth, N.H. The companies will benefit but so will anyone who needs a simple, effective tool to track the source of water contamination.

Same nose, different scent

The idea came to Reynolds from his experience as a law enforcement officer where he trained with dogs used to find narcotics and search buildings. He left that career, earned a degree in environmental science, and was hired by a large engineering firm to look for illicit discharges. “On one job we realized that we were spending an enormous amount of time taking samples that were ultimately coming back clean,” he says.

He began thinking about employing dogs, and in early 2007 he and his wife, Karen, adopted their first dog, Sable, a male German shepherd mix, from an animal shelter. They began offering their service in 2009, and when it became clear the idea would work, they added a second dog.

Forrest Bell, principal scientist at FB Environmental Associates, learned about Reynolds from a client. At the time, his company was working on impairment of surface waters by bacteria. He saw potential, talked it over with his staff, and then arranged to have Reynolds and a couple dogs come to New England. “I wanted to learn whether this is a viable tracking tool, and the more I learned the more I thought it was. We have a lot of issues in New England, and we really wanted to see these dogs in action,” Bell says.

Many of Bell’s clients are municipalities trying to discover what is contaminating beaches and where sewage overflows originate. One of the company’s projects was to test beaches in Kennebunkport, the small Maine town that for generations has been a retreat of the wealthy, such as the presidential Bush family. It’s a beautiful coast where a rental house is $4,000 or $5,000 a week, Bell says, but there were regular warnings or complete closures of the beach because of bacterial contamination. Suspected sources included septic systems, a sheep farm and wild geese.

“We set up a project and did a lot of testing, but at the end of the work we couldn’t say what percentage of the problem came from human waste and what percentage came from the geese living in a nearby marsh,” he says. At $350 or more per sample, testing DNA to distinguish goose waste from human waste was prohibitively expensive. Had he known about Reynolds’ service at the time, it would have made the Kennebunkport project much easier because dogs can test a sample in seconds, Bell says.

Bring in the dogs

Training a dog to recognize waste requires eight months to a year, a bit less for animals that have had scent training, such as for competitions. Reynolds and his staff look for sporting or working breeds, the types of animals that have drive and will work for a reward. Dogs that hunt by sight, such as greyhounds, are out, as are dogs with flat faces such as bulldogs. They tend to have poor scenting ability and have difficulty breathing in hot weather. Age isn’t a great factor, Reynolds says. A dog’s body, sight and hearing deteriorate before the sense of smell. Sable is 8 and still doing well.

Handlers are trained as well, although it is not as rigorous a course as police officers go through simply because police face so many intense situations, Reynolds says. The process teaches dogs not just to recognize waste but also to distinguish human waste from other types. “We collect all sorts of scat to use in our training process and not only pet waste. For example, we also use raccoon scat because raccoons are infamous for living in storm drains,” he says.

“That’s an important point, that the dogs scent only human waste,” Bell says. It relates to that beach in Kennebunkport where it was very difficult for the usual tests to determine what type of waste was causing contamination. Dogs can immediately recognize traces of human waste and won’t be distracted by goose waste.

Fast work but hard work

“In the case of beaches or tributary streams, we can say with confidence whether there is human input. Clients can focus on the animal problem or the human waste problem. In other words, using the dogs allows our clients to target their resources efficiently,” Reynolds says.

And the dogs are fast. In just a few seconds they decide whether a sample or a location is or is not contaminated with human waste, Reynolds says. That ability makes them very cost-effective. This does not mean field technicians don’t take samples, Bell says. They do because the samples can provide other information such as how much bacterial contamination there is or what sort of animal it came from. By distinguishing types of waste and the location of contamination, the use of dogs can cut the cost of testing from thousands of dollars to hundreds.

“The slowest part of the process is the humans. It takes us longer to write down data and talk than it does for them to take a scent,” Reynolds says. And this is hard work, he adds. One summer in Maine the temperature was in the 90s. Dogs and handlers work in mud, in the rain and on hot pavement. They tramp across fields, through streams and brush. In one case, a dog testing a beach in Kittery, Maine, was signaling the presence of human sewage everywhere. It was groundwater seepage, and the dog and his handler tracked that seepage through a wetland and to a grassy area where there was an outhouse used for outdoor weddings.

“You come back bloody and bruised,” Reynolds says.

“I second that,” adds Bell.

An extra benefit of bringing in dogs has been the opportunity for public education. Despite being around for several years, this service remains a novelty. People are curious about the dogs, what they do and how they do it, and this provides openings for conversations about wastewater. In Maine they did many public events using an alternate method of testing: People collected water samples and brought them to one place for the dog to examine. If news reporters show up, the message is spread widely.

Medical noses

There are more threats to human health than untreated or partially treated sewage. If you’ve been watching the news in the last few years, you have probably seen stories about dogs being used to detect the early stages of cancer in people. A few experiments have found dogs can sense the presence of various kinds of cancer, but no one is using dogs systematically for this.

One group of researchers in England found dogs can sense the presence of Clostridium difficile, a particularly nasty bacteria that causes some hospital infections. Dogs are best at this in a patient’s room, where the scientists think they can smell the odor soaked into bed sheets. There is a risk from bringing an animal into a hospital, but the use of dogs suggests an entire ward could be screened for disease in a matter of minutes.

Yet dogs remain a mystery. Many scientists are trying to develop electronic noses, sensors that can smell what dogs smell with perhaps more sensitivity, but the work isn’t progressing quickly because although expensive equipment can find out what is in the air, no one knows exactly what the dogs are smelling.

The company has two dogs field certified for the Northeast and two more in training. Two dogs are in training for the Midwest, and in California the company has employees who own four dogs. The partnership with Bell and his staff allows the two companies to provide a wide range of services to customers, Reynolds says.

Although the company began in the Great Lakes region serving the needs of communities worried about beach contamination, it is being called in to other jobs where leaking sewers or any sort of contamination needs to be traced, Reynolds says. There are now three regional teams limited only by car travel. (The dogs face too much risk in the cargo bays of commercial aircraft.) Regions such as Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes, or Florida’s Indian River Lagoon could easily support the constant use of dogs.

Hitting the beach

Beaches form a common thread in his work, Reynolds says. When he started offering canine services in Michigan, municipalities were interested in finding sewer line breaks or overflows from combined sewers. For those municipalities, the issue was pure economics, as it is for other communities. When prosperity depends on tourism, the last thing a community needs is a wonderful beach that no one can use.

It’s easy to see a business opportunity in this. If dogs cannot be replaced in the near future, it is possible for people to offer this service as either a primary or ancillary business. With the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state environmental agencies paying more attention to water quality along beaches, and with constraints on government funding, the market for using cost-effective dogs looks good.

But this is not an easy business to enter. Many times people call his company and ask how they can train dogs to track waste. While Reynolds is always open to conversations, it’s not a simple process, he says.

“They don’t consider the depth of training. The difficult part is taking the dog from a controlled environment in your garage, or wherever, and moving out into the real world.” Also, you need to have a dog with the right temperament, and you need the right sort of person to handle the dog.


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