Dog handler Lindsay Ware of Ellsworth prepares to search for wood turtles near a stream in Waldo County with her tracking dog, Chili. Deirdre Fleming photo

Lindsay Ware followed her dog through a dense thicket beside a stream in Waldo County for nearly 10 minutes as she and the 42-pound Labrador wove a pattern through the brush, then into the stream, then back up through the shrubbery, over and over. Until at last Chili, the dogged scent-tracking dog, stopped sharp and dropped near the target she sought – a wood turtle.

Then just as quickly, Ware produced a chew toy and launched into a game of tug with the dog.

“This is the ultimate treat,” Ware said with a grin, while keeping eye contact with Chili. “She’s a Lab, so she’s motivated by play.”

The use of tracking dogs to find wood turtles is part of new research being conducted in Maine by biologists and Ware, an Ellsworth dog trainer and handler. Ware has used her four scent-tracking dogs for years to help hunters find wounded big-game animals, such as white-tailed deer and black bear. But in the past several months she has helped her year-old Lab learn to locate smaller species for conservation research, specifically wood turtles.

Ware rewards Chili for finding a wood turtle along a Waldo County stream with a game of tug. Deirdre Fleming photo

Tracking dogs have long been used by Maine Game Wardens to find lost people in the woods. And scent dogs have been used legally in Maine to track wounded big-game animals for two decades – there are currently 14 dog trackers licensed by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. It’s a practice done in dozens of states such as Utah, Montana, New York, New Hampshire, Vermont and throughout the South.

But using Maine scent-detection dogs for conservation work to find smaller species – while common out West and in countries like New Zealand and Australia – is new to Maine, said Maine wildlife biologist Derek Yorks. Although, according to IFW, conservation dogs from Washington state have been used by biologists here to find bat hibernation areas.

“In Maine, Lindsay’s work is unique. I don’t know of anyone else who is currently or has in the past used dogs to aid in turtle conservation work in the state,” noted Yorks, with Inland Fisheries & Wildlife. “Out across the country and around the world it is a well-established tool that has been used with varying degrees of effectiveness.”

Biologists Cheryl Frederick and Matthew Chatfield with the nonprofit Center for Wildlife Studies teamed up with Ware to train one of her scent-tracking dogs to find wood turtles, which are listed by the state as a species of special concern because they are uncommon and also a species sometimes stolen illegally from the wild to be sold as pets.

Wood turtles are threatened across their range from loss of habitat, vehicle strikes, and the pet trade, according to Maine Audubon. They are listed as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, which has tracked the global extinction rate of animals and plants since 1964.

Wood turtles grow to 8 inches long and have an exotic, brown sculpted shell and an orange-red neck and limbs. They typically nest in sandy uplands near streams, and often are hidden or even camouflaged there.

Five years ago Frederick and Chatfield began to find wood turtles in Waldo County that they affixed with radio receivers to track them – first as professors at Unity College and now as scientists at the nonprofit center, which conducts wildlife research and offers training courses. With some funding from Maine IFW and other grants, the two biologists have affixed 22 turtles with radio transmitters to study and track their movements.

But having a scent dog find wood turtles in the wild at will could dramatically speed up research and enable them to get even more turtles equipped with radio transmitters.

Ware prepares Chili for a blind search for wood turtles in Waldo County. Deirdre Fleming photo

In February, Ware began training Chili to find the turtles using a “scent cloth” that the biologists had swabbed on the turtles in the study. In less than a year, finding wood turtles has become Chili’s specialty.

A week ago on a warm day, Chatfield and Frederick met Ware and Chili on a dirt road and hiked through woods to a remote stream where they watched Chili search for a wood turtle Chatfield found earlier using the radio receiver.

They positioned Chili within 100 square meters of the turtle’s known location. Ware put an orange search vest on Chili to signal the work ahead. And while looking her dog in the eyes, Ware said: “Find it.”

Chili sprang off and circled around the stream and up on the bank. In just 9 minutes, 27 seconds, the dog found a turtle – a speedy search that so impressed the group, they decided to test her further.

“It’s a beautiful day for a blind-find. I’d like to do one if we could,” Frederick challenged.

A blind-find is a search by a tracking dog where the location of the target species or object is unknown, so Chatfield put aside his radio receiver. The dog was brought further down stream to an area with even taller bushes and thickets, a location where Chatfield had found a wood turtle in the study a week earlier – but not recently.

After being told again to “find it,” the dog began in a small circle – then expanded the search, running across the river to both sides of the steep bank, circling an area roughly 200 yards around.

As time ticked on, the two scientists chatted about their research, while Ware watched and followed her dog’s every move.

“She’s showing a lot of detection behavior,” Ware said. “She’s trying to pinpoint. She snaps her head – like she just went by it. There are so many distractions out in the environment. Yet she’s staying focused and looking (or smelling) for the scent target.”

Biologist Matthew Chatfield shows a wood turtle found by Chili. Deirdre Fleming photo

In twice the time as before, but in a much larger search area with no indication if turtles were present, Chili laid down in a 4-foot-high thicket after finding a turtle. The reptile was back in a dirt cavity. And Ware had to bend down and peer inside it to see the turtle. But once she did, she launched into a game of tug with Chili.

“She gets to play extra long for that search,” Ware said.

Frederick – who worked for two decades as a zoologist studying animal behavior – nodded and shook her head. It was the groups eighth session conducting turtle searches in the wild with Chili – and only the dog’s second blind search.

“What is so interesting is it’s not us teaching Chili – it’s Chili teaching herself how to find the turtles,” Frederick said. “The dog is learning, and correcting herself. You can see she wants to keep working.”


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