Man’s best friend thwarts environmental enemies in the Florida Everglades

Burmese pythons, released into the Florida Everglades by irresponsible pet owners, have become a serious threat to birds and mammals. But specially trained canines from Auburn University’s EcoDogs program have been able to sniff out the invasive reptiles in places humans overlook.

“Pythons are very cryptic,” said Christina Romagosa, a research fellow at Auburn’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences. “Their pattern camouflages them very well in the grasses and things the snakes are found in. People are quite limited because we can’t see them. But the dogs will use their sense of smell to find the snakes.”

The EcoDogs program collaborated with several government agencies, non-governmental organizations and educational institutions on a pilot study involving six months of intense searches for Burmese pythons in Everglades National Park. On average, the dogs were able to locate snakes two-and-a-half times faster than humans.

“These dogs can be used as another tool in biologists’ tool boxes to help them gather data to help out the environment,” said Bart Rogers, an EcoDogs trainer.

In addition to locating nuisance animals, the EcoDogs canines can sniff out traces of rare and endangered species and detect fungus in tree roots deep underground.

“A person has to go out and take a sample from each tree,” said Jason DeWitt, another EcoDogs trainer. “They don’t really know if a tree has a fungus until it’s showing aboveground symptoms.

"With a dog, we can go in and find an initial infection and tell them right away before they already have mortality in their stand.”

Training is intense and requires a dog able to work independently for long periods of time and motivated by a simple reward, such as a game of fetch or tug-of-war.

“If we take the target odor that we’re looking for and associate that with a reward, then it becomes a game for the dog and it’s just really easy to work with them,” said trainer Lucas Epperson.

Once the dogs locate items, they’re trained to sit down and point their snout toward the location. In the case of finding Burmese pythons, the dogs have been trained to do this from a distance of five yards. For their safety, the dogs are placed back in their kennel trucks before professional snake handlers remove the pythons.

While many of the pythons discovered in the Everglades were euthanized, some were tagged with radio tracking devices and released for further study. Others were donated to the Nature Conservancy for use in training personnel in how to catch snakes.

Dogs alone won’t eliminate the snake infestation in the Everglades. However, researchers believe they could play a vital role in locating, studying and ultimately controlling the problem there, as well as environmental threats elsewhere.

“As a conservation biologist, one of the most difficult aspects about my job is just finding the animal that I want to learn more about,” said Todd Stuery, an assistant professor at Auburn’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences. “That’s where the dogs come in.”