Sniffing Out Water Leaks

Central Arkansas Water’s favorite pet finds water system leaks and brings awareness to the issue.

Sniffing Out Water Leaks

Is it stormwater or treated water? Vessel, with handler Tim Preator, can tell the difference.

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Officials at Central Arkansas Water decided in 2019 to get serious about leak detection. So they bought a dog.

“Dogs can identify lots of things,” says Douglas Shackelford, director of public affairs and communications. “They are trained to sniff and identify something, whether it’s drugs or explosives or anything they can train on. Trainers can take that ability and instead of the dog sniffing out explosive material or gunpowder, they’re training on chlorine.”

Central Arkansas Water serves about 500,000 people in and around Little Rock, pumping about 68 mgd through nearly 2,800 miles of pipes. Vessel, a Labrador retriever mix, and handler Tim Preator investigate leaks reported to the utility and even find leaks that haven’t surfaced.

Canine advantages

Vessel has a couple of advantages over other leak detection methods, even some high-tech methods such as using satellite imagery. Her nose can distinguish between treated and untreated water. Is that puddle along the road from a water main leak? Or is it just stormwater? Vessel can tell, because she’s looking for the scent of chlorine.

“She’ll work in a pattern, nose to the ground, trying to find water,” Shackelford says. “Once she finds it, she’ll sit and look back at her handler. He’ll say, ‘What did you find?’ If she finds the scent of chlorine, she’ll speak back; she’ll bark.” She is then rewarded with her favorite object, a tennis ball that Preator always keeps in his pocket.

Every time she discovers chlorine, whether it’s a main leak, a training exercise or a demonstration for a school group, Vessel gets to run after the ball.

Her intense desire to play ball is what made her a washout as a service dog. “Vessel was going to be a service dog for someone with PTSD, or perhaps a Seeing Eye dog,” Shackelford says. “But she had a high ball drive: when they showed her the ball, she would forget her training and go for the ball.”

Highly accurate

When Central Arkansas Water reached out about training a leak-sniffing dog, Vessel’s trainer thought she would be a good candidate. Training began with canisters of chlorine, large ones at first but gradually smaller, and Vessel became extremely sensitive to the scent.

“Her nose is so sensitive that she can find a difference in chlorine concentration,” Shackelford says. “There could be a large pool of water, but because she is so sensitive, she can pinpoint the higher concentration, which is probably closer to the leak. She can pinpoint the leak even more than a satellite could. That could enable us to dig once and repair the leak on the spot.”

Before obtaining Vessel, the utility had tried many ways to find leaks. “We have done just about everything there is,” says Shackelford. “Unaccounted-for water is a big deal, and trying to find leaks is a struggle, especially if they don’t surface. Vessel can find leaks without digging. She can smell a little bit under the soil and tell the difference between rainwater or groundwater and treated drinking water.” On her first 100 work orders, she was 97% accurate.

Public relations asset

Vessel’s other advantage over competing methods is her popularity with customers. “Vessel is an ambassador for water here in Central Arkansas,” Shackelford says. “The community sees her as a celebrity. They can’t wait to get their picture taken with her when they see her.

“She brings an awareness to the community that you don’t always get with a spokesperson like me going on the morning news show talking about sprinkler usage or watershed protection. Everybody wants to see Vessel, and all of a sudden, they are thinking about drinking water in general, and that’s a great benefit to us. She’s very much a PR person.”

Vessel and her handler have their own truck with the utility’s logo on it; plans call for having the truck wrapped with a big image of Vessel.

Preator is Vessel’s second handler; the first was Stephen Sullivan, who was working in the distribution department when the utility obtained the dog. He had experience training hunting dogs; he worked with Vessel successfully for more than a year but then was promoted to a different position. Preator answered the utility’s ad for a new handler.

“Tim came to us from the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Department, where he was a canine officer,” Shackelford says. “We had to teach him water, but he already had a great understanding about how to handle service dogs.” Vessel lives with Preator and his family.

When there are no work orders for leaks to be investigated, Preator and Vessel sometimes walk easements just to see what she finds. “If we suspect there is a leak in a pressure zone, we’ll send her out to walk easements,” Shackelford says. “It’s a chance for her to find leaks that we don’t know exist. She’s pretty successful. They can be very small, minute leaks. She’s not triggering on the amount of water; it’s the chlorine.”

First but not only

CEO Tad Bohannon, while on an international studies program in Great Britain, heard of a dog in Scotland that had been trained to detect leaks. “He came into my office and said, ‘Hey, I think we need to get a dog,” recalls Shackelford.

The staff began searching for a dog and someone to train it. “Only then did we realize that this dog would be the first of its kind in North America,” says Shackelford.

Since Vessel has been so successful, other utilities have investigated using dogs to detect leaks. The company that trained Vessel, On the Nose Detection Dogs in Roland, Arkansas, now advertises that it trains leak-detecting dogs.

“Now there are actually several,” Shackelford says. “Those companies reached out to us. I think it’s going to become more of an industry standard to use dogs to identify and pinpoint leaks. The return on investment has been very high, not only with the success of finding leaks, but also the exposure for the utility. 


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