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Conservation canines are sniffing out zebra and quagga mussels infesting waters across the U.S. and Canada.  |  Credit: Frani Halperin/H2O Media, Ltd.

Want to Avert an Alien Invasion? Simply Call on Man’s Best Friend

They're only about the size of your fingernail, but they're a scourge of mammoth proportions.  Zebra and quagga mussels are tiny mollusks that have spread from their accidental introduction to the Great Lakes in the 1980s to plague water bodies from coast to coast. They have no natural predators, but their toughest adversary might be a dog.

By Frani Halperin, Executive Producer
Published: 29 Jul 2015 | © H2O Media, Ltd.

Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada—Invasive mussels move quickly to cover any hard surface they come in contact with, from boat hulls to water intake pipes, causing much financial damage. Their sharp shells litter shorelines, creating hazards on beaches. But the most serious consequence of their introduction is the damage they cause to ecosystems. These mussels compete directly with fish and other aquatic organisms for food, disrupting the natural food web and ecological balance of a water body, an imbalance frequently resulting in nasty algal blooms.


Jamie Sudler, H2O Radio: “Hilo” is a spunky young black lab mix and he’s on a mission. Wearing a bright orange vest, the one-year-old pup is intently working his way around a 20-foot boat parked on a trailer at a roadside checkpoint.

Frani Halperin, H2O Radio: As his handler cheers him on, he sticks his nose in nooks and crannies, sniffing the prop, the bilge, the hull—every inch of this boat that would come in contact with water.

Jamie: What's he looking for? Narcotics? Illegal ivory tusks? Other types of contraband?

Frani: Nope. None of those. He's intent on finding his target—zebra and quagga mussels—invasive species overtaking freshwater bodies all across the U.S. and Canada. If he finds what he’s looking for, he’ll stop in his tracks.

Cindy Sawchuk: Our dogs display what's called a “passive alert.”

Jamie: That’s Cindy Sawchuk, Hilo’s handler and Aquatic Invasive Species Operations Lead with the Government of Alberta, Canada.

Cindy: When he’s doing his search pattern, if he detects the odor that he’s trained to find, which is invasive mussels, he’ll sit down. Then as a handler, I’ll ask him to pinpoint exactly where he found it. He’ll point to it with his nose and then I’ll verify. I’ll look and then he’ll get a reward which is a ball.

Frani: We're with Cindy and her team at a weigh station in Medicine Hat, Alberta, about two hours north of the Montana border on the busy Trans-Canada Highway. The east-west route moves many an outdoor enthusiast and their watercraft to the plentiful rivers and lakes in the country—and potentially—carrying with them aquatic hitchhikers.

Jamie: To that end, Cindy and her department are taking no chances at letting this menace muscle its way into the province.

Frani: It's mandatory that anyone pulling watercraft—from sailboats to stand-up paddle boards—stop to be inspected. If you don't, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police will nicely "invite” you back to be checked because—after all this is Canada where their reputation for politeness is world famous.

Jamie: But that attitude might change if you contaminate their lakes and rivers, which are currently mussel-free. Zebra and quagga mussels are a problem of immense proportions—from infesting all of the Great Lakes to water bodies as far west as Lake Mead on the Colorado River—a plague for which there is no current solution.

Cindy: These mussels are pretty devastating should they be introduced into the Province of Alberta. What they do is they attach to any hard surface. They don’t have any natural predators, so they completely overtake the ecosystem. It’s a really big concern for us in Alberta because we have over 8,000 kilometers of buried pipes and canals used for agriculture. These conveyance send water to things like rural communities, thousands of residents, industrial facilities, not to mention irrigation, our wetlands.

Frani: The tiny creatures—about the size of a fingernail—were brought to North America in the 1980s through ballast water discharged by cargo ships from the Black Sea. They survive by sucking up huge amounts of phytoplankton, the basis of the food chain.

Jamie: And they breed quickly—one female can produce more than a million eggs in a single year to create massive colonies that completely overtake lake bottoms.

Frani: As another boater arrives the wind off the Alberta plains picks up. The team greets the driver to explain the inspection that only takes ten minutes or so. Motorists have been overwhelmingly positive about the program—a mixture of surprise and giddiness.

Jesse (government staff): So we do have the canines here that do the inspections.

Motorist: Like a dog? Any he actually smells the little mussels? Isn’t that something!

Jamie: The dogs are great ambassadors to raise awareness about the seriousness of the problem of invasive mussels, but they’re also a huge asset in being able to search areas a human might miss, like under the boat or in bilge pipes, plus dogs can help inspect boats that come through at night when it would be harder for a human to see.

Frani: And all they ask for in return? A toy.

Aimee Hurt: This idea of using a dog that really wants a toy. He doesn’t care about the thing he’s finding. There’s no dog bred to find mussels. Instead, we can kind of do this bait-and-switch and say if you find this thing that is of no inherent value to you, you get this thing that is really valuable to you.

Jamie: That’s Aimee Hurt, co-founder of the nonprofit Working Dogs for Conservation. They trained the dogs and handlers now working in Alberta.

Aimee: I’m here to support the three new dog handler teams. We did a two-week training academy in California. That was really a whirlwind of information where the handlers are literally meeting their dogs for the first time and learning how scent works and seeing how dogs are trained to scent and they have to learn search strategy and learn just to contend with these high-drive, crazy dogs.

Jamie: Is there a particular breed that makes for a good sniffer dog?

Aimee: There’s not a specific breed that does a better job at this. We like to get most of our dogs from shelters or rescue organization. The dogs are all really toy-crazy, so that’s the first thing and the easiest thing we can look for in the shelter. All dogs possess the ability to smell mussels. They’re actually a kind of stinky target. So we don’t need some dog that renown for excellent sense of smell. Do they really want that toy? Do they want to work with a person? Do they have a good work ethic? Able to drive up to a site and pop out of the car and get going with all sorts of distractions that are around.

Frani: And, now it’s "go" time—time to test that work ethic. Here at the checkpoint there’s idling trucks, a new environment, and the public who get out of their vehicles to watch them work—quite different than training camp, which was isolated and full of repetition and routine.

Jamie: In the training, dogs frequently found mussels that were planted on the boats in order to learn the odor. At this inspection station, not so much. In the two months they’ve been out here the dogs have inspected 7,000 boats and intercepted only seven contaminated ones.

Frani: While that’s good for Alberta, as it indicates that mussels are not yet in the area—it gets a little dull for the dogs.

Jamie: Given that, Aimee and Cindy decide to ask a motorist if, once their boat gets an all-clear they could plant a mussel to demonstrate that the dogs really can do this work. The driver is more than willing to help.

Cindy: Why don’t you put your car in park and hop out and watch?

Jamie: So, you’re going to plant this on the boat?

Cindy: Mhmm, I’m going to put it in the bilge where the water would drain out. We'll see what Wicket has to say about it.

Frani: Wicket begins her search as the crowd watches. She zigs and zags smelling and sniffing all around the boat, sometimes jumping up on it with her protective booties so she doesn’t scratch it.

Cindy: Yay! Everybody clap! Good girl!

Jamie: Wicket successfully found the mussel. If this hadn’t been a drill and a real critter had been found, the boat would have been searched again and then decontaminated in a hot power wash.

Motorist: It’s amazing what dogs can smell. My wife was just reading on how quickly they spread.

Bailey (government staff): Oh yes, it takes one. There's your proof of inspection. Just make sure you keep that with the truck. Thank you, sir!

Frani: With that, the driver’s off. Smiling faces and wagging tails show that dogs are not only keen scouts, but public relations superstars. 💧

USGS Zebra Mussel and Quagga Mussel Information Resource Page: Get up-to-date news and information on zebra and quagga mussels plus maps on their current U.S. distribution.