How cute: The handful of eager dogs sniffing about and gulping tasty rewards appear to be learning a game.

But what Molly and Crush and the others are training to do may soon earn their owners a few bucks and, more importantly, may protect the health of potentially vast numbers of people.

Seven Sonoma County dogs and one from Marin are honing their ability to detect and alert their handlers to the presence of raw sewage in creeks and other natural waterways and in storm drains.

"It's all a game to them," said longtime dog trainer and retired educator Laurie Leach of Windsor. "And we teach it as a game."

As with obstacle-course agility training and other types of organized recreation for dogs, the pets are praised and rewarded as they refine a skill. In this case, they signal the handler by barking, sitting or lying down when their sensitive sense of smell picks up even a faint presence of human excrement in water.

"These dogs are learning to use their noses to keep our creeks, rivers and beaches safe," said Chris Kittredge, a Santa Rosa studio photographer and working partner of Taya, a Labrador/golden retriever mix.

She and Leach, who works with a border collie named Poppy, and five other North Bay dog lovers are working toward becoming just the nation's second team of professional handlers of dogs trained to sniff out sewage in water. They're being taught by the 3-year-old Environmental Canine Services of Vermontville, Mich.

Scott Reynolds, who founded the company with his wife, Karen, said their own dogs in Michigan are called upon most frequently to help track the sources of human E. coli bacterial contamination at Great Lakes beaches. Such pollution poses a health hazard that can prompt officials to close beaches.

The Reynoldses and their dogs are available to patrol storm drains that empty into the lakes. Because the water the drains carry is not treated, such systems are designed to carry only runoff and are supposed to be free of sewage.

Working upstream from the points at which storm drains empty into lakes, the Environmental Canine Services dogs take a sniff into drain manholes and alert their handlers to the presence of human waste.

Scott Reynolds, 43, said that by identifying where the scent of sewage does and does not exist along a storm drain line, the dogs direct officials to where they should focus a search for the source of the contamination.

Without the dogs, authorities trying to track a sewage leak must rely more on lab tests of water.

"The advantage of using a dog instead of lab testing is that lab testing can take weeks. Sources of pollution can be long gone by then," Reynolds said. "Dogs give us economical, real-time results so we can zero in on the problem faster."

At this point, Environmental Canine Services responds to all requests for dog assistance from its office in Michigan. Reynolds said he's excited to be training a second team of dogs and handlers to take service requests from throughout the West Coast.

"We're looking forward to the California team taking their certifications in April," he said. "They're a good group of people and excellent dogs."

Why a Sonoma County team?

The North Bay became a training site after Leach, 67 and a former teacher, principal and Healdsburg schools administrator, became intrigued by the concept.

She was speaking to a nephew in Santa Barbara, a restoration biologist, a year and a half ago, and he mentioned that a specially trained dog from Michigan came to Santa Barbara to trace an "illicit discharge" of sewage.

As someone who has long loved to work and play with dogs, Leach was thrilled by the notion of a canine response to sewage spills. She contacted the Reynoldses and offered to help gather a team of dog owners interested in taking the training.

She anticipated no trouble in finding good candidates, and she was right.

"I think the people are drawn to it because there is an element of doing good," she said.

The seven humans and eight dogs meet regularly for training sessions that last about 90 minutes. Much of the work involves having the dogs sniff opened manholes or buckets of water, some of which contain minute amounts of sewage.

Once the dogs are certified by the Michigan company and go to work, they may be called upon to sniff buckets of water drawn from a creek or stream suspected of having been fouled by sewage.

As they sharpen their skills, the North Bay dogs earn a treat when they correctly detect contaminated water and signal the discovery.

"We're having a really good time," Leach said. And she wasn't speaking there just of the humans.