Wildlife Defenders: A Career as a Conservation Canine Handler (Part 1)

By Paula Fitzsimmons with Jennifer Hartman

With wildlife poaching at epidemic levels and time the enemy, fighting these crimes has never been as critical. Conservationists fortunately have effective tools at their disposable, most of them technological in nature – DNA analyses, acoustic traps, and radio collars, to name a few. But one tool, which some conservationists claim is even more effective, turns out to be our four-legged canine friends.

Dogs are effective conservation allies by nature because of their unique ability to sniff out scat from dozens of different species. Scat analysis is immensely helpful because it gives scientists crucial information about a population’s movements, distribution, and health. This data is used not only to fight wildlife crimes, but it also helps scientists better understand the factors behind animal behavior – and this can ultimately lead to the development of more effective wildlife management plans and policies.

I wanted to learn more not only about the role conservation dogs and their caregivers play in protecting wildlife – but to see if this field has potential for career growth.

So I asked Jennifer Hartman, dog handler with Conservation Canines, a detection canine program of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington, for her input.

Jennifer provided me with so much valuable information, that I’m breaking it into two articles. This first part will introduce you to the dogs (you’ll be thrilled to learn they’re considered family), and the important role they and their caregivers do in the fight for wildlife.

The second part will discuss more in detail what it takes to get a job as a conservation canine handler.

With minor editing on my part, here’s what Jennifer had to say . . .


Conservation canines Max & Scooby with their handler Jennifer Hartman

Handler Jennifer Hartman with Conservation Canines Max & Scooby in Alaska. | Photo credit: Casey McCormack


About the dogs

Where they come from . . .

JH: “We adopt the dogs that don’t make ideal pets. Most of the handlers are shy, introverted wildlife techs so we’re a group of people and canines that are fully devoted to each other. In fact, I would say that our small group of handlers and dogs are one big misfit family.”


CK9 Max of Conservation Canines

Conservation Canine, Max, in Alaska. | Photo Credit: Jennifer Hartman


Safety comes first . . .

JH: “We NEVER work a dog in unsafe conditions, but we do work in all sorts of weather; from rain to snow, high heat to high humidity, blaring sun to blustery wind. We go the extra kilometer in chest deep snow, despite being tired. Or we wade through mucky water to carry the dogs on our shoulders to cross a river. We might climb to the top of a steep overgrown ridge because our target species prefers this type of habitat, or we might spend 30 minutes chopping through thick snow and ice to dig out a sample our dogs have located.

The dogs love what they do and their  joy is catching but we still need to maintain huge amounts of positive energy as we navigate across tough landscapes.”


The dogs are more than workers, they’re family . . .

JH: “Most of our dogs are housed in a beautiful kennel facility in Eatonville, Washington. When we go on projects the dogs remain with the handler at all times. We form incredibly close bonds with the dogs that we work with so much so that eventually, when the dogs reach retirement age, many handlers have not one, but a few dogs that they adopt from the program. very dog in our program has a home at the end of their careers.

When there are no projects for me I take the two dogs I work with most, Max ( a blue heeler mix) and Scooby (a black lab mix) with me on my cross country tops to visit family and friends. It’s hard for any of us to be away from the dogs for any length of time.”


Where Jennifer and her team work

JH: “We’ve worked all over the world, from Brazil to Mexico, Alberta to British Columbia, Africa to Cambodia, Turkey to France, as well as all over the US. We’ve worked in Washington, California, Montana, Alaska, Texas, Illinois, Wisconsin, and many other states. From beaches conducting turtle nest searches, to mountain passes in search of carnivore scat, back-country adventures to look for elusive wolverines, to wildlife refuges in search of bobcat.


Elizabeth Seely with conservation canine Tucker in St. Lucia

Handler Elizabeth Seely with CK9 Tucker on a St. Lucia invasive iguana project | Photo credit: Conservation Canines


I’ve personally worked in Alberta on our Oil Sands projects surveying for wolf and caribou scat, in the dead of winter, where the snow was chest high.

I’ve been to Cambodia where the dogs and handlers slept in hammocks and hiked to the next base camp. We were looking for signs of tiger.

Most recently I was in South Africa and Mozambique where we camped for three months in the bush looking for lion, cheetah, leopard, and wild dog scat. Elephants, hyenas, leopards, and hippos walked through our camp in the evenings.”


What the work involves

JH: “The work involves a lot of patience. Patience with the dogs because they are ball crazy, playful, and high energy. Patience with yourself as you learn to work with them and for them. Patience with the job as it takes unexpected twists and turns depending on funding.

The work also requires us to be happy and joyful even if we are hot, covered in sweat and bug bites, or cold on a windy mountain slope or wet, in a densely vegetated drainage.

Being a dog handler means we are cheerleaders. The dogs are incredible and their enthusiasm for the work is what keeps each of us motivated. They are so enthusiastic that to be there for them when they need us the most, means that we have to go above and beyond a person’s normal threshold for enjoyment in miserable conditions.


Conservation Canine, Max on the Center for Conservation Biology's Northeastern Washington Carnivore project, Colville and Kanisku National Forests, Washington. |Photo credit: Jennifer Hartman

Conservation Canine, Max on the Center for Conservation Biology’s Northeastern Washington Carnivore project, Colville and Kanisku National Forests, Washington. | Photo credit: Jennifer Hartman


Our dogs are trained to find orca whale scat off the bow of a boat on the ocean, while others have taken helicopter rides to be dropped off in road-less areas to search for bat roosts.”

CK9 Max is pictured above near cougar scat he helped locate. The team swabs the scat for genetic material and collects a portion in a plastic bag for diet analysis. An Android phone and Bluetooth GPS are used to take location information.

The job generally involves a willingness to work in dirty, muddy conditions, a desire to explore places few people would reasonably go to (we aren’t going to the most scenic or popular places; we are hiking in some of the least desirable places), the patience to learn each dog and their special requirements, and the stamina to go the extra mile or wake up at unreasonable hours to work the dogs in the most ideal conditions.”


Stay tuned for the next part of this series to learn more about job prospects in canine conservation.

Conservation Canines is a small organization doing essential and conservation work. Please visit their website if you’d like to make a donation.

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