Wildlife Tracking Team

Rita Santos and her helpful hound locate threatened animals in the wild

COURTESY OF ROGUE DETECTION TEAMS

PARTNERS AND PALS: Rita and Hera are constant companions.

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.

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FOUND! Santos and Hera recently helped locate tigers (left) and leopards (right) in Malaysia.

What kinds of conservation projects do you work on?

Scientists, governments, or universities hire my group when they want to learn something specific about animals in the wild. For many projects, it’s important to find scat and collect it for analysis. Scientists can learn a lot from scat, like the number of individuals in a population, what they’re eating, and what diseases they may have.

Some of our projects focus on live-animal tracking too. Hera and I were once hired to find a rare grasshopper species. Grasshoppers move around a lot, making them hard to spot. But a dog can sniff them out even when the human eye can’t see them. We trained Hera to pinpoint that species of grasshopper in the field while ignoring the other insects in the area. On another assignment in France, sea turtles were nesting on public beaches. We trained Hera to find buried turtle eggs so the nests could be protected.

What is a typical day like when you’re on a job?

Hera and I live in Portugal, so we get assigned to many of Rogue Detection’s non-U.S. projects. Our typical workday is really long. We’re up before sunrise and out in the field as early as possible.

When we’re not outdoors working in a survey area, we stay in a house nearby. But sometimes we go to a location so remote you have to camp. That’s why it’s essential for me to know how to navigate using a compass and map and to have outdoor survival skills, like being able to find water and build a fire. It’s often just me and Hera in the wild for days at a time.

How does your group find and train its dogs?

We choose shelter dogs that are considered unadoptable. We look specifically for hyperactive dogs that have a ton of energy. They need to be obsessed with toys like balls. Balls are an important training tool.

We teach each dog to detect scat by putting a piece of it on the floor. The moment the dog sniffs the scat, it gets the ball as a reward. Quickly, the dog starts to associate finding scat with playing with the toy. Using this method, we can typically train a dog in about 15 days. On the other hand, it usually takes about two years to train a person to become a handler. It’s a lot easier to find a suitable dog than a suitable person!

How did you end up becoming a conservation dog handler?

When I was 14, I started volunteering at an animal shelter. I wanted to work with aggressive dogs unlikely to be adopted. As I trained them, I learned a lot about canine behavior and communication.

In 2014, a team from Rogue Detection came to Portugal for an assignment and wanted to use a local dog. They chose one, named Zeus, that I’d been working with at the shelter. He was attached to me, so they took me on too. They trained me to work with Zeus on the project. After that, they asked me to join their team full-time.

What are the most challenging and rewarding parts of your job?

I travel a lot. That’s hard because I miss my family and friends. Also, it can be difficult being a young woman in charge of a big project. People sometimes don’t listen to me at first. But that changes when they see that I know what I’m doing. The best part about my work is being out in the field with Hera and seeing her excitement as she does her job!

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