For thousands of years, dogs have been our best friends, our sources of comfort and happiness, and even our aids in helping to save threatened species. But now, they’re finding new employment opportunities in another sector of meaningful work.
Our canine companions have recently been taking on the title of water-pollution detector—sometimes in a formal capacity, and sometimes, unfortunately, by happenstance.
A dog’s sense of smell is said to be 10,000 to 100,000 times better than that of humans. If you make a vision analogy—even at the lowest range on that scale—what you and I can see at a third of a mile, a dog can see from more than 3,000 miles away and still see it as well. And if that’s not mind-boggling enough, the part of a dog’s brain that is devoted to analyzing smells is, proportionally speaking, 40 times greater than ours.
That’s why, in recent times, dogs have been trained to help us by sniffing out dangerous materials, such as bombs or drugs. Now, however, dogs that previously might have been trained for those tasks are being taught to uncover human waste. And, some of these special pollution snufflers are not only depending on their incredible senses of smell, but visual cues, as well. These dogs are intrigued by items such as manhole covers, which can lead to the discoveries of cracked sewer pipes, one of the most common sources of E. coli.
In Michigan, for example, a company called Environmental Canine Services will deploy their dogs in the field in an effort to locate any contamination that indicates bacteria from a human source. When the dog detectives find such a bacterium, they’ll give an alert, such as barking or sitting, immediately identifying the origin of the problem.
In contrast, by using traditional methods, researchers would have to take multiple water samples or dye tests—where dye is dropped into toilets so investigators can see where it goes—send those samples to labs and wait two weeks to two months to get E. coli results back. Then, they would need to go back into the field and take more water samples to start tracing the E. coli upstream. Dogs can find the source in a matter of minutes for far less money.
The price for a trainer and a dog to travel and work for a week ranges between $5,000 and $10,000, but using other specialized tests, such as genetic fingerprinting to help investigators distinguish between animal and human fecal bacteria, would cost more than $100,000. And by using dogs, dye testing can be decreased from about 200 houses to maybe only 10.
Currently, cities whose storm sewers date to the early 20th century have spent a lot of money as they struggle to clean up discharges into waterways from underground networks of pipes that have often never been mapped. Dogs in such cities have found whole sewer lines that had been dissolved by sewer gas and some sewer lift stations, which pump wastewater, that were leaking into nearby creeks.
By using dogs to quickly locate the sources of E. coli, Michigan was able to achieve a 7 percent decrease of reports of it in 2016.
The nation of India also has dogs that signal pollution, although they may not be willing participants in the job.
In August 2017, after pictures of at least five, bright-blue dogs in the industrial suburb of Mumbai began being published by local activists and reported in the Indian and international press, the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) investigated.
Stray dogs often wade into the river in search of food. The MPCB determined that the dogs were emerging tinted in shades of blue because a private, chemical manufacturer of colorants was using blue dye in its products, such as detergents, and was releasing its processing wastes into the Kasadi River.
Among other MPCB findings was that nearly 1,000 engineering, food and pharmaceutical factories located in the area were also releasing their wastes into the river, and the water is now too polluted to support life. The dye company was issued a closure notice for failing to follow directives on preventing water and air pollution.
Dogs and humans share a special bond. They help us in many ways—sometimes not even knowing that they are—and they expect so little in return. I’m sure that in the future, we’ll find more and more ways to enlist their skills for our benefit.
I just hope that we, in turn, come up with more and more ways to “compensate” them for jobs well done and their steadfast, professional—and highly voluntary—loyalty.
Here’s to your adventures, in whatever corner of the world you find them,