Last spring, 25-year-old Rita Santos found herself trekking through a dense jungle in the Southeast Asian country of Malaysia. There, she spent three weeks searching for endangered leopards and tigers. The data she collected could help inform researchers about where the big cats were living. But Santos couldn’t have located the elusive animals without her partner, Hera—a 4-year-old mixed-breed dog.
Santos, a professional dog handler, works for Rogue Detection Teams. The conservation agency sends human-canine pairs into the field to learn more about rare species. Dogs have a keen sense of smell, making them ideal for this type of work. Handlers like Santos train them to use their sensitive noses to detect different animals in an area, often by sniffing out their scat, or poop.
What Santos and Hera discover could help scientists better understand how creatures under threat are faring in the wild—without having to disturb the animals. Santos spoke with Science World about her canine companion and how they work together to protect species at risk.