Meet Britain’s First Water Leak Sniffer Dog

A water utility in northwest England is adding a cocker spaniel named Snipe to its arsenal of leak detection tools

Meet Britain’s First Water Leak Sniffer Dog

A process of adding extra chlorine to one of a series of glass pots containing tap water was used to train Snipe on the type of smell he has to key in on out in the field. (Photo courtesy of United Utilities)

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Last year, we wrote about an Australian water utility that was deploying dogs and their superior sense of smell as a leak detection tool. Now a British utility is experimenting with the same thing.

According to a recent report in the Daily Telegraph, United Utilities, which serves about 3 million homes and 200,000 businesses in northwest England, is using a 16-month-old cocker spaniel named Snipe in trials to assess how well the dog can pinpoint water leaks in rural areas where they are harder to detect.

Snipe’s owner, Ross Stephenson, has been training the dog for this since late last year.

“All I did was start off with normal tap water, and then put in extra chlorine levels to make it stronger,” Stephenson told the Telegraph, explaining the basic methodology for the training. “We just put a tiny bit of that in, so the dog understands the strongest odor is the one we want him to find. We would have eight glass pots, one of them would have (extra chlorine) in, and every time the dog sniffed that pot, he would get rewarded — a tennis ball. What I had to do was take the pots outside first and start doing it in different environments, and then I would take the pots away, have normal tap water, pour it on the ground and get the dog to search that. We want the dog to sit and stand and stare where the source is. Try to get the dog to stay there for 30 seconds, a ‘passive indication.’”

Stephenson owns a pest extermination company with business partner Luke Jones. Both men previously served in the military with the Royal Veterinary Corps, where they used dogs to search for weapons and explosives. They transferred those skills to their business, using dogs to sniff out bed bugs. Now they’re adding water leaks.

“Using dogs to search for drugs and explosives is well known, but there are a host of other applications that we are only just starting to explore,” Stephenson says. “We’re really excited by the progress Snipe is making and we hope that soon water leak sniffer dogs will be a common sight.”

“All the principles are basically the same. It’s just a different setting. And less stress,” Jones adds of transferring a dog’s smell detection training from military purposes to water leaks.

United Utilities’ tap water is one part chlorine per million parts water. A dog’s nose can detect one particle of an odor or scent in a billion, so Snipe could be especially valuable in rural areas of extremely wet northwest England, where differentiating between a leaky pipe or just a puddle out in a field can be challenging, says Hannah Wardle, the utility’s regional leakage manager. 

“This is where we hope Snipe will really come into his own, as his sensitive nose can detect mains water at incredibly low concentrations,” Wardle told the Telegraph. “With leakage detection, it’s all about building up the evidence using a range of different technologies. We’re trialing the use of satellites and drones to get a bird’s eye view of a particular area, but the devil is in the details, and pinpointing the exact place to start digging is more difficult than you might think. We are hoping within the next three months, we will be in a position where the dog can be properly working for us finding leaks where we don’t know where the location is already.”

Source: The Daily Telegraph


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