While out and about today, Snoopy, our resident cheetah scat sniffing dog, showed us quite how easy it is for dogs to smell differences we cannot see. We are currently working on farmland and were driving transects to pick up footprints of animals that have passed by the night before, and saw a large predator scat in the road. There were no fresh tracks at all to identify it’s creator, so we offloaded Snoopy and asked him. Immediately he indicated strongly on it, staring intently at the scat, then back at me, waiting for his reward. Definitely a cheetah scat! We collected the sample for analysis later on, and continued on our way. Further on, we again slammed on the brakes for another promising looking sample in the road, and again offloaded Snoopy. This one looked pretty much identical to us, but Snoopy barely bothered to sniff it. I had given him his command to search, and left that scat to carry on looking. It was close to a river bed, which is typical leopard territory, so I am quite sure Snoopy was right and this was was not cheetah.
During the training process, he was offered a range of scats from different species, and only rewarded for indicating on the cheetah scat, so he wont waste his time on scats from other species as he knows they hold no reward. They may look the same, but a dog’s incredible sense of smell allows them to distinguish between the species. Dogs elsewhere have been trained far enough to identify individuals within a species. We are not quite there yet, but we are making great progress!