Leak Detectives: Dogs Sniff Out Failing Wastewater Systems

From beach contamination to leaking sewers to failing wastewater systems, these dogs know how to sniff out a problem.
Leak Detectives: Dogs Sniff Out Failing Wastewater Systems
Training a dog to recognize waste takes eight months to a year. Reynolds and his staff look for sporting or working breeds that have drive and will work for rewards.

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For thousands of years dogs have tracked game for humans. Now they’re tracking threats to human health.

Several years ago, Scott Reynolds realized he could use dogs to detect wastewater. Now, after a few years of training and field experience, his Environmental Canine Services of Vermontville, Mich., is forming a partnership with FB Environmental Associates to use the dogs to track sources of water contamination.

Why not wastewater?
The idea came to Reynolds from his experience as a law enforcement officer, training dogs used to find narcotics and search buildings. He left that career, earned a degree in environmental science, and joined an engineering firm to look for illicit wastewater discharges.

“On one job, we realized we were spending an enormous amount of time taking samples that were ultimately coming back clean,” he says.

In early 2007, he and his wife, Karen, adopted a male German shepherd mix from an animal shelter. They began offering its services for wastewater detection in 2009, and soon added a second dog. Forrest Bell, principal scientist at FB Environmental Associates, learned about Reynolds from a client and decided to give the service a try.  

Many of Bell’s clients are municipalities trying to discover what is contaminating beaches and where sewage overflows originate. One project was to test beaches in the wealthy oceanside community of Kennebunkport, Maine, which was seeing beach closures and warnings because of bacterial contamination.

“We set up a project and did a lot of testing, but at the end of the work we couldn’t say what percentage of the problem came from human waste and what percentage came from the geese living in a nearby marsh,” Bell says.

At $350 or more per sample, testing DNA to distinguish goose waste from human waste was prohibitively expensive. The dogs would have made the project much easier because dogs can “test” a sample in seconds, Bell says.

Bring in the dogs
Training a dog to recognize waste takes eight months to a year. Reynolds and his staff look for sporting or working breeds that have drive and will work for rewards. Age isn’t a huge factor, Reynolds says: A dog’s body, sight and hearing deteriorate before its sense of smell.

Handlers are trained as well. The process teaches dogs to recognize waste and to distinguish human waste from other types.

“We collect all sorts of scat to use in our training process, and not only pet waste,” Reynolds says. “For example, we use raccoon scat because raccoons are infamous for living in storm drains,” he says.  “In the case of beaches or tributary streams, we can say with confidence whether there is human input. Clients can focus on the animal problem or the human waste problem. In other words, using the dogs allows our clients to target their resources efficiently.”

And the dogs are fast. In just a few seconds, they decide whether a sample or a location is contaminated with human waste. Field technicians still take samples to get other information, such as how much bacterial contamination there is or what sort of animal it came from. But the dogs can cut the cost of testing from thousands of dollars to hundreds.

Tough duty
“The slowest part of the process is the humans,” Reynolds says. “It takes us longer to write down data and talk than it does for the dogs to take a scent.”

Dogs and handlers work in mud, in the rain and on hot pavement. They tramp across fields, through streams and brush. In one case, a dog testing a beach in Kittery, Maine, signaled the presence of human sewage everywhere. The source turned out to be an outhouse used for outdoor weddings, placed near a wetland.

An extra benefit of using dogs is the opportunity for public education. People are curious about the dogs, what they do and how they do it, which provides an opening to talk about wastewater. In Maine, Reynolds did public events where people collected water samples and brought them for a dog to examine. If news reporters show up, the message spreads widely.

Currently, Reynolds’ company has two dogs field-certified for the Northeast and two more in training. Two dogs are in training for the Midwest, and in California the company’s employees own four dogs. The partnership with Bell and his staff lets the two companies provide a wide range of services.

Not an easy process
Although the company began in the Great Lakes region serving communities worried about beach contamination, it is being called in to other jobs where leaking sewers or any sort of contamination needs to be traced. Beaches form a common thread in Reynolds’ work: When prosperity depends on tourism, no community wants a wonderful beach that no one can use. At first, communities were interested in finding sewer line breaks or combined sewer overflows.

Reynolds’ business is not easy to enter. Often, people call and ask how to train dogs to track waste. It’s not a simple process.

“They don’t consider the depth of training,” Reynolds says. “The difficult part is taking the dog from a controlled environment in your garage, or wherever, and moving out into the real world.”

It also takes a dog with the right temperament and the right sort of person to handle the dog. 

So far, Reynolds seems to have just the right recipe.



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