An odd partnership is emerging: two German shepherds who are creating the world’s largest database of trained, long-haired shepherds.
So far the nine dogs have detected a host of wildlife, including a possum, voles, woodchucks, deer, rabbits, and raccoons, to the delight of their owners and scientists, who hope that the data gleaned from the dogs’ efforts can provide insight into why certain animal species have been tagged with the distinctive breed marks that led to their urban, farm and even remote habitats.
About 100 million people in Germany live within 10 kilometers of a building site, according to Jan Welke, general manager at the Nature and Wildlife Fund. The dogs are being paid for the work with a grant from the organization’s “I feel good” program, which rewards happy donors.
In Koberbach, a town in Germany’s state of Baden-Württemberg, the animals have sniffed out some of the signature signs of the German shepherd breed, including herding traits.
“The dogs help us to understand why some shepherds can be found roaming around in cities,” Welke said. “I am of the opinion that if we understand this better we will be better able to identify these problems.”
It’s not just the herding stuff that makes the shepherds special: Studies have shown that shepherds have higher tolerance levels for different environments and can easily handle small, difficult terrain as well as rough trees and water.
“They can find things out like you and I,” said Bernd Weldon, who runs the Koberbach training center for the dogs and their owners. “You can ride on a bicycle in the forest and no one can recognize it as you,” he said.
Similar problems are seen around the world, where human population grows and out-of-control development opens up rural and natural habitats to degradation. As a result, wildlife populations decline.
Experts say such breed registrations are a relatively recent development.
“It was only recently that breed authorities started to collect breed data,” said Per-Ola Bierke, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna. “Before that, the only species that they did this for were dogs.”
Still, the collection of such information is becoming more commonplace, particularly in recent years, thanks to advances in technology, Bierke said. “Before, we had very limited opportunities to collect genetic data,” he said. “Now, though, even if it’s expensive, we have the technology to do this.”
Dogs can be particularly sensitive to factors such as terrain, weather and seasonal factors that can affect food availability, behavior and even appearance. A dog will also be able to pick up some novel traits that are more indicative of a particular breed than any other trait, Bierke said. “This makes a better application. It means we can find the uniqueness in a data that we would never have been able to gather otherwise.”