Tortoise dogs used by the St. Louis Zoo’s Box Turtle Project

Tortoise dogs used by the St. Louis Zoo's Box Turtle Project

Seven Boykin Spaniels lie across open grasslands and in a forest of oak and hickory trees. They are followed by a senior guy in an orange vest and a group of researchers in green vests. As one of the dogs approaches a find – in this case a triple turtle – its tail begins to wag wildly. Once she finds the turtle, she carefully puts it in her mouth and then returns to the group of people who are after her. There she gives it to a waiting hand, receives a lot of praise and then goes back to work.

A compact flush and retrieval breed native to South Carolina (and SC’s state dog), Boykin Spaniels are known for their soft mouth – a behavioral tendency in which quarries are gently picked up, held, and carried. This ability, along with her excellent sense of smell, is well used by the St. Louis Zoo’s Box Turtle Project, conducted by researchers from the zoo’s Institute of Conservation Medicine.

The research assistant Maris Brenn-White, DVM, MPVM, explains why the dogs were included in this project: “[We have] has been studying box turtles in the St. Louis area for nine years. During this time we learned how difficult it can be to find box turtles just by looking with the human eye. Box turtles have evolved to blend in perfectly with their environment. This is perfect for escaping predators, but it presents a real challenge for researchers. Based on some of our recent research, we started a new study of a newly emerging virus in three-fingered box turtles that required us to locate a number of box turtles in a short period of time. “

Knowing the successes of other conservation groups with sniffer dogs and the studies that have shown their safety and effectiveness, the researchers asked their colleagues for suggestions. Here’s what they heard: When it comes to turtles, John Rucker is the man to see. Rucker, a retired teacher and self-taught naturalist, is from South Carolina and now lives in Montana, where he raises and trains Boykin Spaniels. For nearly two decades, his summers have toured the country with his “turtle dogs” to help scientists work on the protection of box turtles.

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At the beginning of his life, Rucker lived in North Carolina and trained dogs to rescue birds that were bagged by hunters. Then some of his dogs spontaneously began bringing him turtles (unharmed and undamaged, as one would expect from a dog with a soft mouth). He rewarded and shaped this behavior and expanded his turtle tracking package with new dogs, who learned a large part of their job from watching and following the older dogs. Eventually, he decided to turn the accident into a business and let the dogs do what they wanted, of course.

Rucker begins turtle dog training when the pups are three to four months old. With scent and a shape that he created from the shell of a dead turtle, he teaches dogs to recognize the shape of the turtle. By the time they join older and more experienced turtle dogs in the field, they can make the leap from shape to wild turtle fairly easily.

This is the first time that the Institute for Conservation Medicine has used dogs as helpers in one of its studies. Dr. However, Brenn-White notes that they are “investigating the wild relatives of dogs – coyotes and foxes – on the property of the Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Park.” She goes on for thought-provoking, “Understanding how our pets and working dogs interact with and affect native species is a very important part of this study and much of our local and global conservation work. In nature conservation we often encounter dogs as predators, competitors and sources of disease for threatened wild animals. This was a great opportunity to see how dogs can help protect if we train and care for them the right way. “