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North Coast dogs learn to sniff out sewage spills

  • Aryn Hervel rewards her dog Crush after the dog correctly identified the container holding raw sewage during training, Saturday, February 23, 2013. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

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.

Dogs Trained To Sniff Out Raw Sewage

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"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.


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