Working with Wildlife Detector Dogs to Find Indigos



Dylan Kelly is a Field Technician for The Orianne Society and has been working with Charlie, a wildlife detector dog, to search for Eastern Indigo Snakes (Drymarchon couperi) on and around our Orianne Indigo Snake Preserve in South Georgia. Here is a snippet of his adventures with Charlie–you can read more about Charlie and our Indigo conservation work in our upcoming issue of Indigo Magazine this spring.

Authored by Dylan Kelly

Before November 24, I had heard of wildlife detector dogs being used in the field, but I had never had firsthand experience with one. I had the pleasure of meeting and training with two, Charlie and Kona. I knew nothing of the energy and drive that these dogs bring to the work they are trained for. Barb Davenport of Pack Leader, a group that trains wildlife dogs in Washington State, brought these dogs with her to the Orianne Indigo Snake Preserve. They could not have had more dissimilar working styles.

Charlie, the seven-year-old veteran, is a wrecking ball on four legs. “If Charlie had a motto, it would be CHARGE,” says Barb. Barb calls dogs like Charlie “brush breakers.” When Charlie catches the scent of his target, he follows the rule that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Shrubs, thorns and fallen trees do not register as obstacles to him. C.J., one of the first dogs used by The Orianne Society, would snake his way through thickets and avoid thorny spiny things.

Kona, age four, is still green. She is in the early stages of her training. Barb brought her along to get some field time to see if she would be cut out for snake work and to double my training time while Charlie was resting. She is also a brush breaker like Charlie. Where Kona differs is that she works at a significantly slower pace. Charlie’s pace is a slow gallop while Kona works at a casual trot. Both of these dogs are ball driven. They work to find their target so they can have time to play with their ever-coveted tennis ball. Kona loves tug of war, and I get the feeling she gets a kick out of playing keep away from me. Charlie loves to chase his ball. He will drop the ball at my feet and stare at me till I throw it. Both dogs are constantly working when they are outside even when they seem to just be playing. If they pick up the scent of an Indigo, they will be off in an instant.

To give you an idea how effective these dogs can be, on the second day of training, Charlie made his first official find. It was an Eastern Indigo Snake shed that was a couple of weeks old. Kona then proceeded to find it as well when it was her turn to run the course Barb had set. Both dogs have also been able to pick up the scent of one or more of our samples from a couple hundred feet away when the wind is up.

I realized pretty quickly that I was really the one being trained. This is not Charlie’s first time with Indigo work. He knows what to do. This training was meant to reinforce what he already knows, help him acclimate to the Georgia weather and build up his stamina. I had a great deal to learn. Most importantly, I had to learn to read Charlie’s body language while he is searching to know when he has picked up an odor; how to read the air currents so that I could direct Charlie with the best chance of him crossing the target odor; and the general care of a high energy working dog. It is easy even in the “winter” in Georgia for Charlie to overheat. In the past a GPS has been attached to a detector dog, and it was discovered that while I may be hiking three kilometers, a dog like Charlie could be running 10 to 15 kilometers.

The end of my training culminated right before Indigo Days where I had an early chance to showcase Charlie’s talents for Orianne members. My fellow technician Josh Zajdel has racked up an early lead over Charlie of five Indigos. We will have a friendly competition between Charlie and Josh to see who can come out on top at the end of his six-week stay. I think Josh doesn’t stand a chance. On Charlie’s first official survey he found four Indigo Snakes, two of which were a male and a female at the same burrow. The fourth and final Indigo of the day was found at a burrow that Charlie had indicated on early in the day. The burrow had a shed on the apron, but Charlie could smell something stronger from inside the burrow. It was about an hour later that we passed the burrow again, and this time Charlie indicated where the shed skin had been. Only now a female Indigo Snake was there basking. Without Charlie we would have never known to check that burrow again. We would have never captured that snake.

Through mid-January, primate Josh maintains a fairly slim lead over detector canine Charlie: seven snakes found by Josh to five snakes for Charlie, not including a possible mating pair that I found while Charlie was on a rest break. Charlie has assured me he will rally and more than make up the difference, though. It’s worth mentioning that Charlie made a singular discovery in a north Florida tortoise burrow: a momma river otter and pups. As far we have been able to determine, this is a first!