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Taking a dog that no-one wanted and turning him into a hero isn’t something you hear about every day.
But this is exactly what the nonprofit program, Conservation Canines, is all about.
By adopting toy-obsessed, high-energy dogs stuck in shelters who have little to no chance of finding a forever home with a family, and matching them with tenacious, patient handlers who train dogs in scent detection, the program turns these pups into super-star heroes who help biologists study and protect endangered species and habitats.
That’s right, this program…
Rescues Dogs – Tick!
Matches them with caring trainers + gives them a purpose – Tick!
Saves endangered wildlife + habitats – Tick!
What more could an animal lover ask for?
Conservation Canines was brought to my attention by talented photographer Jaymi Heimbuch who recently captured a behind the scenes look at the program (and the gorgeous dogs involved!)
You can literally feel the love, hope and true inspiration resonating through her images.
For the last 18 years, Conservation Canines has been rescuing shelter dogs and training them to work in scent detection for the Center for Conservation Biology at University of Washington.
The non-profit doesn’t select just any dog. “We work with the juvenile delinquents of the dog world,” Heath Smith, the program coordinator, tells me as we stand on the grass outside the kennel, throwing a ball for one of the newest recruits.
He’s seen an incredible array of dogs come and go, but there are two things that, despite age, breed, or size, they all have in common: endless energy and an insatiable ball drive.
This combination is usually the reason why the dogs fail as pets and end up in a shelter in the first place, with many of them on a fast track to be euthanized. Most families don’t want an overly energetic, toy-obsessed dog as a pet.
They bring the dogs to the shelter (if the dog is lucky) and the dogs sit and wait for a prospective new owner to take interest — something that is unlikely to ever happen once it is clear just how much daily exercise they require simply to stay sane, and how much daily training they require just to make them a remotely enjoyable companion.
Yet these very characteristics that make them a nightmare of a pet, make them ideal working dogs. Once they are given a job that exercises both their brains and bodies, the dogs can thrive — moving away from being a problem dog and into being a problem-solving dog.
It is not just the lives of dogs that the program saves. The future of dozens of species in dozens of ecosystems around the world also need the help of these smart, driven dogs.
The dogs in the Conservation Canines program are trained to detect the scat of multiple species, and they are deployed into the field to lead handlers to these treasures of information.
Scat can provide a wealth of data to researchers, including which species are present, the abundance of the species, what the animals are eating, the status of their health, even whether or not females are pregnant, and so much more. The importance of scat to a study can’t be understated, and to be able to use dogs to quickly collect scat of one or several target species in a large range over often rugged terrain is a tremendous asset.
I recently went into the field with the handlers and dogs doing work in the wilds of a national park in Washington, and visited the training facility where the dogs not currently in the field are housed and trained.
It is an incredible amount of energy that goes into the job — both hiking in rough terrain and in the 24/7 care of more than a dozen high-drive dogs — and yet, it is nothing compared to the amount of time and energy that would be required from researchers were dogs not in the picture.
This combination of rescuing dogs while working toward species and habitat preservation is what drew me to Conservation Canines in the first place.
I have been following their work for several years now and this year couldn’t resist diving in to see how I could help out. The photos I created are all on a volunteer basis — to create a calendar to sell to raise funds for the group, and to keep these dogs working.
Even months after I spent time with these dogs and their handlers, I still get choked up thinking about the love that goes into their job. It was an honor to be there, capturing it all on camera.
I am a wildlife photographer with a particular passion for canids, including our domestic four-legged best friends. My animal photography has been published in online and print media outlets around the world. My love for canids, for conservation work and for storytelling is rolled into my ongoing project The Natural History of the Urban Coyote, which documents the lives of urban and suburban coyotes to better understand them and promote peaceful coexistence. I am also a member of HeARTs Speak and volunteer as a photographer for San Francisco dog rescues.
To support this amazing program head to Conservation Canines – donations of $40 or more receive a free 2015 calendar featuring Jaymi’s breathtaking photography.
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