Calgary

Pinkerton the poop detective: Dog's sense of smell is no monkey business

A dog’s enhanced sense of smell, coupled with a strong play-drive, is proving to be a cost-effective way for researchers to track down rare primates in remote jungle and mountainous areas.

Belgian Malinois trained to sniff out scat of rare primates in remote mountains of China

Pinkerton the scat sniffing dog

6 years ago
Duration 1:15
Pinkerton, a Belgian Malinois, has been trained to find three rare species of primates by sniffing out fecal samples they leave behind.

Pinkerton the pooch has a unique talent. He can sniff out the poop of three rare primates — all in the name of conservation research.

Pinkerton's keen sense of smell, coupled with a strong play-drive, is proving to be a cost-effective way for one Calgary researcher to track down rare primates in remote jungle and mountainous areas.

The Belgian Malinois was adopted and trained as a detection dog by Joseph Orkin, a post-doctoral researcher currently at the University of Calgary.

A research paper by Orkin published in October 2016, describes how Pinkerton spent three months being trained at facilities run by the Chinese Ministry of Public Security, where he learned to identify the scat of three rare primates — western black-crested gibbons, Indochinese gray langurs and stump-tailed macaques.

The cost of training the dog in China was just $3,000, compared to the usual cost of tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring in specially trained international teams.

Pinkerton was used to search 12 sites across two mountain regions — Wuliangshan and Yongde Daxueshanin — in Yunnan, southwestern China, where locals believed the primates lived.

The Belgian Malinois breed was chosen, Orkin told The Homestretch, because of its detection capabilities — Pinkerton can detect just one- to two-parts-per-trillion. 

"They're becoming more and more common in search and rescue, drug detection, bomb detection, things like that," he said.

Joseph Orkin collects a scat sample found by Pinkerton, a Belgian Malinois detection dog, in southwestern China. (Joseph Orkin)

"For a long time the difficulty with doing conservation genetic work with wild animals was that it's really hard to get DNA samples," he said. "You can't just climb up a tree with a cheek swab kit and ask nicely, so we usually study fecal samples, which every animal leaves behind in the forest."

"So what Pinkerton does is his nose can smell what my eyes can't see."

Orkin describes Pinkerton as "a smaller German shepherd, with a straighter back.

"He's very expressive, has a really high play drive, a lot of energy," he said. "His eyes are super expressive and we say he looks a bit like a lemur."

Once he finds scat that meets the smell test, Pinkerton is trained to sit down and signal Orkin.

"So when we're walking through the forest and we find something with potential, Pinkerton will lean in, take a big whiff and mull it over," he said. "And if it's the right stuff, he'll put his paws on either side of it, lay down and wag his tail, all in exchange for 30 seconds with his tennis ball."

Joseph Orkin, centre, with Pinkerton, and members of a survey team in the Yongde Daxueshanin region of Yunnan, China. (Joseph Orkin)

There's only about 2,000 gibbons still in the wild, said Orkin, and Pinkerton was able to help a small population living in a remote corner of China.

"There's only 14 of these gibbons left and we'd only had one genetic sample," he said. "When Pinkerton came through, we were able to find two more, so he was able to triple the available knowledge of this population of apes."


With files from The Homestretch

now