Combining a Love of Dogs with Conservation with Co-Founder Heather Nootbaar

In this episode of K9 Conservationists, Kayla interviews co-founder Heather. They discuss how Heather got into the world of conservation detection dogs, her experience before K9 Conservationists, and how she and Kayla joined forces. 

Science Highlight: Using Scent Detection Dogs in Conservation Settings: A Review of Scientific Literature Regarding Their Selection

Topics Discussed in this Episode:

  • Heather’s dad, who showed bearded collies when she was a kid
  • Heather’s history as a zoology major in college, then working in zoos and wolf sanctuaries
  • How diving way into animal behavior and dog training landed Heather a job with conservation dogs
  • K9 Ellie’s temperament and how that challenged Heather to grow
  • How Heather made money and survived financially through unpaid internships
  • How Heather selected Ellie for work – and what she’ll do differently next time
  • The pros and cons of working with a dog who’s more food-driven than toy-driven
  • What Heather learned in a K9 Nosework class that helped (and didn’t help) as a working dog handler
  • The hiccups Ellie and Heather experienced during their first wind farm job
  • How Kayla and Heather met and joined forces
  • Where Heather is excited to see the field progress in the future

Links Mentioned in this Episode:

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Transcript

Credit to amazing volunteer Miriam Chen for editing this transcript!

Kayla Fratt (KF) 0:09

Hello and welcome to the K9 Conservationists podcast where we’re positively obsessed with conservation detection dogs. Join us every week to discuss ecology, odor dynamics, dog behavior and everything in between. I’m your host, Kayla Fratt. And I’m one of the cofounders of K9 Conservationists, where we train dogs to detect data for researchers, agencies and NGOs.

(KF) 0:28

Today I am joined by one of my co founders, Heather Nootbar. Welcome to the podcast, Heather.

Heather Nootbaar (HN) 0:33

Thanks for having me.

Kayla Fratt (KF) 0:35

So today we are doing, similar to our episode that we just did with Rachel, kind of an introductory episode for the other two co founders of K9 Conservationists. And I’m really excited to get to know a little bit more about Heather with all of you. But first, we will jump into our science highlight.

(KF) 0:53

This week, we’re reading the paper Using Scent Detection Dogs in Conservation Settings: A Review of Scientific Literature Regarding Their Selection, which was published by Sarah Beebe, Tiffany Howell and Pauleen Bennett in Frontiers in Veterinary Science in 2016. They were examining how existing organizations have adapted selection instruments from other contexts for the use of conservation dogs, but they noted that there is very little published information available regarding the effectiveness of these instruments for actually selecting conservation dogs.

(KF) 1:26

What they found is that 43.3% of conservation dog handlers/owners/trainers reported that dogs were acquired from professional conservation detection dog training organizations, or were selected using criteria developed by those organizations. Which actually, that 43% seems kind of low for that. A further 40% of the studies reported adapting tools used for the selection and training of narcotics, explosive, search and rescue, cadaver, police and forensic detection odds. Of those only one study reported on the specific assessment tools that were adopted. And to quote they say, “the lack of standardized and publicly available assessment tool for conservation detection dogs, along with a widespread failure in available literature to report on a specific selection process is a significant omission, particularly given that several studies show that conservation detection dog performance may be impacted by many factors.”

(KF) 2:23

Later in the paper they continue, “When analyzing the specific characteristics of commonly selected foreign conservation detection dogs, it appeared that a strong play or food drive was the most common trait selected for.” Appropriate temperament for the field of conservation was also cited often. And traits regarding problem solving, intelligence and trainability were reportedly selected for in many studies. This suggests a considerable focus on psychological factors above biological or social factors. And is important because these traits are typically very poorly defined and difficult to measure. Biological characteristics of the dog including agility, physical stability, and body type were included as a selection consideration in only a few studies in the review. They did note that, to them, the important factors for selecting a conservation dog should include and often do include morphology.

(KF) 3:17

For example, we’ve talked about this before. You may not want a severely brachycephalic breed that easily overheats in the field. The olfactory system, ensuring that’s intact. Visual and auditory systems, again, ensuring that’s intact. But also potentially looking at dogs that are not highly, highly attuned to their visual auditory systems over their olfactory system, such as sight hounds. The dog’s personality, nerve strength, motivational desires, social intelligence, and of course, handler characteristics.

(KF) 3:47

I think this is a really important paper and something that we all need to be keeping in mind as we’re sharing our information on how we select our dogs. Maybe one day someone will actually be able to examine the success of different approaches for selection, and how those may differ. Because, again, we don’t know if using test A actually predicts dog success better than test B. This also is a literature search. They were not able to do a controlled comparison of selection strategies. That would be a massive, massive study, and I don’t know where or when we would get funding for that. And overall, it’s just tough because people aren’t really publishing on their selection methodology much. As they noted, people just aren’t saying all that much.

(KF) 4:34

So without further ado, let’s get into it with Heather. Heather, why don’t you start out by telling us a little bit about what you were like as a kid? Were you always into dogs? Were you always into conservation?

Heather Nootbaar (HN) 4:49

Yeah, I was actually telling you about it yesterday. My first dog was a Bearded Collie because when my dad was younger, he was a Bearded Collie breeder and would show them at conformation sort of shows. And so my dog growing up, he was [my dad’s] last one, he didn’t breed him. But that’s how I grew up in that realm and have always had dogs in my life. I knew I wanted to do something with them, but people often are, you know, do you want to be a veterinarian? And that just never felt like the right fit for me. As I grew older, I really felt my heart towards saving the planet. I know, dream big. So then I actually ended up going to school for zoology and wildlife conservation/management. Growing up, though, always been an outdoorsy kid. Played a lot of sports, and did a lot of things with dogs outside. But yeah, it’s kind of come full circle to where we’re at now. But didn’t know that this was a career path to be striving towards at that time.

Kayla Fratt (KF) 6:20

I don’t know if I’ve talked to anyone who was like, “Yeah, you know, when I was six years old, I heard about the field of conservation detection dogs.” I mean, maybe now that we’re doing more Skype a Scientist stuff. In 10 or 15 years, we’ll have our first our first kid who came around from Skype a Scientist! But that sounds fairly typical. Did you have any classes or jobs or anything that were particularly impactful for you in either high school or in college?

Heather Nootbaar (HN) 6:51

I think my high school class that was just AP environmental science was the one I found the most interesting. Kind of telling us all, or learning all about the plights that our planet and environment are having to deal with. And in college, mammalogy course, and I don’t know any other ones off the top of my head. And then background of jobs and things that I had after college, just trying to find my fit within the wildlife and conservation field. I kind of bounced around trying to, you know, find what felt right and spent some time at the Columbus Zoo because I went to school in Columbus. And that was a good experience.

(HN) 7:41

But I kind of wanted to be doing something that, I don’t know, had a more direct impact. Or I felt like I was doing more hands on then –  obviously, caring for the animals there is important. But it was a different type of feeling I was going after. And then I was at a wolf dog sanctuary, where I learned a lot just about the creature that people created. And how it’s really not their fault that they are here. But a lot of people get them and don’t realize that around, you know, a year and a half, they’re not really meant to be inside a house. And so they had nowhere to go. So this woman in Tennessee had tons of land and made it her mission to give them the most natural, you know, outside life that they can. So all that to say I tried sanctuary life. And then I think I was just looking for, again, more hands on connection to I guess, the planet at large. I was on the Texas a&m job board and shout out to them. I think I just came across a conservation detection dog posting. And I was like, “What is this? It’s a mixture of two of my favorite things.” And that led me to where we are. And, you know, four years later.

Kayla Fratt (KF) 9:10

Yeah, that’s so interesting. I think part of why I’m excited to do these episodes is seeing some of the parallels and some of the differences between you and me and Rachel. We’ve actually got a couple other episodes coming out where we interviewed a bunch of different conservation handlers about how they got into the field, and actually how they selected their dogs. So that ties into our science highlight. It seems like so many of us were doing this kind of bouncing around and, you know, we didn’t quite want to be a vet. We didn’t quite want to be a zookeeper. We didn’t quite want to be at an animal shelter. Maybe we didn’t quite want to do, you know, point counts or bird banding. But we wanted to be somewhere in that area. So when you found that first job, did you get that first job? And if not, what were some of the steps that you took between that and actually landing your first conservation dog gig?

Heather Nootbaar (HN) 10:07

The first job, if I’m not mistaken, was with a group called Find It detection. And they are out in Colorado somewhere. I had just applied or reached out really on a whim, knowing I did not have a dog at the time. But I think they provided a dog. So they were looking for handlers for their seasonal work. And I got the response back that you don’t have quite enough backcountry wildlife experience, or the dog handling side. So they could have gone with either side, and I didn’t have enough of either to be a good fit. But then that kind of gave me the kick in the butt to start doing that.

(HN) 10:54

I had been applying to numerous wildlife technicians or biological, you know, steady tech jobs through the job board. But just being in, in that field, it’s quite oversaturated. Or it’s just really hard to land some of those jobs. So I was like, well, since I haven’t had a ton of luck doing that side of things, why don’t I brush up on my dog handling skills. Growing up, like I said, I had dogs and you know, had been “training them” quote unquote. But I didn’t have a solid education or background in the theory behind it and things like that. So that’s kind of where I started. I ended up going to a lecture kind of workshop at my local library, and a woman was talking about dog training there. She turned me on to the pet professional guild. And so I just looked up local trainers that I had the same kind of philosophy and emailed them and told them what my ambitions were. And I got an email back from a woman who was very, very nice and said, “Why don’t you just come shadow my dog classes?” And I did that for a whole summer. All the while in the background, I was looking for my canine partner. I knew I was drawn to the herding breeds. And I was kind of looking for Border Collie. So when the right dog came along, I pulled the trigger. But I think that might be another question.

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Kayla Fratt (KF) 12:35

No, that’s okay. Well, this trainer that [you shadowed]. What are some of the things that you were able to learn in this group class setting that you have found useful and applicable for your life as a conservation dog handler? Because I think sometimes there’s this perception that can be perpetuated by the industry that like, “Well, we’re not really dog trainers the same way other dog trainers are, so there’s not really much you’re gonna get from going to a local obedience class.” And I know I disagree. But this is your interview. What do you think about that? Is there anything that you found useful there that you’ve moved on with?

Heather Nootbaar (HN) 13:13

Oh, totally. I think just seeing different dogs. Even just different individual dogs and the families that they’re with. You can observe the interactions, learn dog behavior and body language just from being there. And get an idea of what instinctively or like, what certain breeds might traditionally provide for you ethology wise. And that can tailor what may work for you as a handler in the field. Like we’ve discussed before on the podcast, there’s a different spectrum of dogs for the job. And you can make a lot of them work, it’s just what works for your lifestyle when you’re also not in the field working with them. So just getting a feel for what might be a good fit for you. Just noticing the relationship building, I think that’s super important. And then it’s important to have basic, I don’t know if it’s manners, but for in the field, you have to have an emergency stop. Or just have skills, directionals, things like that that are, for safety reasons, important for a conservation dog to have. So they’re the basic level. It also helps while you’re, if you get a puppy, you know, building that relationship to then transfer on to a working partnership. Just all around connectedness with your dog.

Kayla Fratt (KF) 14:47

To some degree, you can get really far without knowing the quadrants of operant conditioning. And without having a formal education in learning theory or ethology. But, damn, those things can really help!

Heather Nootbaar (HN) 15:04

Totally. And I had a few of those issues come up. I was having a little bit of trouble. I don’t know, Ellie was my first highly active and intelligent breed, or on the higher end of that scale, that’s what you get with a border collie. And so I didn’t know what I was in for.  It was a learning process. If an issue would come up, I think that’s how I might have come across Journey Dog Training back then. It’s just the willingness and wanting to problem solve and make your dog and your life a little bit better. Helping them get through the human side of the world a little better. So [I] totally agree that you don’t have to know all of the basics or the definitions of things. But getting that understanding does help in the future. Recognizing different things that could come up or how to prevent things by how you set them up too.

Kayla Fratt (KF) 16:14

I do not know how I would survive – Barley actually almost more so than Niffler. Even though I got Niffler as a puppy. If I did not have, obviously again, some amount of dog training know how. Whether that comes from years of hands-on experience, and maybe less of the academic experience. Or I do think that academic experience can really kickstart things. So I have one last question for you. Before we get into Ellie. Because I think this is important to talk about. While you had your summer where you were shadowing this trainer, were you working as well? Were you living at home with your parents? How were you supporting yourself through that? How did you manage to get that learning done? Given that it wasn’t a paid position, it sounds like.

Heather Nootbaar (HN) 17:04

I was fortunate enough to still have my parents house to live in. So I wasn’t having to deal with additional rent and housing costs. But I did have a full time job at a wildlife prevention… I don’t know how to describe it. But a wildlife customer service job that I was working a 7:30 to 5:00. Yeah. And then after that, going to puppy class and things like that in the evenings. Two to three times a week. Just to get those hours under my belt.

Kayla Fratt (KF) 17:44

That sounds very busy. And actually, it’s funny, the first thing I thought was, gosh you were almost lucky that you didn’t have Ellie yet. Because trying to manage that schedule, when you had Ellie would have been tough. And maybe that’s a little takeaway for early career people is if you’re in that stage where you might need to be juggling multiple jobs.  Because you’re doing so much learning, maybe don’t rush to get a dog quite yet.

Heather Nootbaar (HN) 18:07

Totally. And I can say that my time shadowing definitely dropped off as soon as a puppy entered my life. So fair question!

Kayla Fratt (KF) 18:16

Yeah, I know I did my really intensive, probably 60 to 80 hour week madness, primarily while I was in undergrad. And I didn’t have a dog yet. Part of my learning was that I was a paid dog sitter. And I used those dogs sitting clients as my test subjects to practice everything I was learning in dog class. So you know, I was like, “Oh, what’s this positive reinforcement thing? maybe we can teach this dog to walk without the prong collar that I’ve been handed by the owner.” And I was able to do that while also managing to do all the fun things that you do in college and also have a job and blah, blah, blah, because I did not have a dog yet.

(KF) 19:02

So pivoting to that. How did you find Ellie? And what were you looking for? Because you knew where you were going. But there’s not a clear roadmap, as again, we’ve talked about in the science highlight. There’s not a good checkbox publicly available online to help ensure that you get the right dog for this field. So how did you do it and where did she come from?

Heather Nootbaar (HN) 19:24

Yeah, that was obviously a big decision/undertaking that I was trying to just figure out all on my own because there are very little resources. I think I had probably gone to a few of the organizations that are doing conservation detection work and saw what breeds that they were dealing with and saw some of their assessment videos. I knew I wanted a dog that had a higher toy drive. Also hard to necessarily assess with a puppy. I think I was stuck on wanting a clean, quote unquote “clean slate.” So I went for a puppy. And in hindsight, knowing what I know now four years later, my selection process for my next conservation dog would be quite different. But I still am lucky that I had the dog that I had. [She] taught me a lot. 

(HN) 20:30

I had been using shelters, I’d been using petfinder. I filtered the breeds that I was looking for. I think I had Cattle Dog and Border Collie as my filters, and occasionally a shepherd would come in to that filtered group. I just kind of looked, maybe daily at one point, just to see if the right dog would come along. And realistically, I was in Illinois and I didn’t have the means to go too far out of my range. I ended up driving four hours into Wisconsin to pick up Ellie.

(HN) 21:14

At that point I should have been ready if it wasn’t the right fit, you know, to leave. But it’s kind of a sunk cost of “well, we’re four hours in.” But I met her and we played in their outside enclosure kennel thing. And she played with the ball. And I was like, “Cool. That’s good.” So yeah, then the learning came after that. But I think I really just got lucky. She still is not as high of a drive for toys. When we’re searching she is still more food motivated. Which I’ve come to learn, there are pros and cons of having that. When you are in a field position when it’s so hot outside that it is extra energy for your dog to play fetch or go after their frisbee or whatever. And you have to limit their reward. That’s kind of a negative. Whereas I can just give her some cheese or chicken and she’s totally ready to find the next target that we’re finding. 

(HN) 22:31

I still wish sometimes that she would have that little bit more focus or drive. But you live and learn. She was four months old when I got her. And we started at a puppy class just to get some socialization in. And then I think maybe around six months, we did our first nosework class. At the same place  they were offering K9 nose work. So that was her intro to the scent work field. And I’m sure that’s how every basic nosework  class goes. But it was just finding food in boxes. And I was learning a lot. I had been doing a little bit of my own education of the odor dynamic/scent theory on the side. But it was good to see what a nosework instructor had to say, learn from all their past experience and then see what they’re seeing in my dog. And then we just progressively went through the class from there, got on to some essential oil odors, and yeah.

Kayla Fratt (KF) 23:54

Starting at six months is young. And she’s a cool dog to watch search because she’s very bouncy and has a lot of fun. But she’s also super efficient. And I think she is one of those dogs that really proves that you don’t need the dogs that will run through a burning building for their tennis ball in order to have a successful working dog. You did mention that there are some things that you would or will do differently when you’re looking for your next partner. What are some of those differences or things that you’re going to be thinking about for your next dog?

Heather Nootbaar (HN) 24:36

Yeah, I think I’m still on the fence of if I will go the route that you did with Niffler with trying to find a breeder and really vet the background of the parents to try and see if it would be the best fit, working dog wise. To try and set your dog up for success being that this is my chosen career field. I just think I got really lucky with Ellie but getting a puppy at a shelter, just not knowing the background of the parents and things, challenges could come up. And with this lifestyle, it would be really tough to have a dog that you’ve invested so much time in, that doesn’t want to be a working dog. Because of their background and things. So I think, yes, starting them off as best as they can.

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(HN) 25:32

Or the other option is finding a dog that’s at a shelter or through another means. Like the Search Dog Foundation, one that might have washed out in another field, but is a little bit older. So you kind of know what you’re getting with that dog. But they have that drive to want to work and haven’t been able to successfully be placed in a family home. So those are kind of the two routes that I’m thinking about for now. I think my next dog, I would like the challenge of having a little bit more drive-y dog. Now that I’ve had experience seeing how Mr. Barley works. And being in Kenya, seeing how Percy the Malinois has worked. I think it would just be quite a shift from what I’m used to. Ellie has a very solid on and off button, which has been amazing. But we’re active all the time anyway. So I think it would be a fun dynamic to try out.

Kayla Fratt (KF) 26:34

I think you make a good point that in general, puppies are hard to predict. And it’s just that much harder when you’re going with a shelter dog where you can’t necessarily look back through their pedigree or meet the parents and see what the parents are doing. Niffler’s folks, he’s got at least one stud dog in his pedigree that has produced several female certified search and rescue dogs. I think he’s got one of them also in his pedigree. And his pedigree isn’t 100% star studded or whatever. But he’s got enough of that behind him, plus knowing that both of his parents do performance and sport. And are very solid doing agility or disc dog performances in front of the halftime show at a stadium or whatever.

(KF) 27:31

I felt pretty confident that I was going to have the genetic package I needed. And then the puppy assessments I feel like were a little bit less important than just knowing that I was very likely to have the genetic package I needed. And then yes, again, we did assess puppies. We’ve talked about this in the past on the show. This was actually, I think, in the pandemic puppy podcast that I used to run. We had an entire episode called Puppy Temperament Tests Aren’t Very Predictive with Dr. James Ha. 

(KF) 28:00

With a shelter puppy, the temperament tests are kind of all you’ve got because at best mom might be available. But you have no idea what dad is like. And in the vast, vast, vast majority of cases, you have no idea what the grandparents are like. And without having a breeder putting the work into mom. Even if you’ve got a Malinois who comes into the shelter. She’s pregnant, she has a litter, they look like Malinois Shepherd crosses, say. I saw this at the shelter I used to work for. And you kind of look at them and you’re like, “yeah, they could be working dog prospects.” I think they were actually Malinois Lab crosses we thought. So they’ve got the breed there. But without anyone having put the work into mom to demonstrate her abilities, it was really hard to assess her. And then again, obviously, we just had no idea on dad’s side or the grandparents or anything – I’m going down a rabbit hole.

(KF) 29:02

But I think those are really good points and really good cautionary tales that potentially if you know you want a puppy, it might be better to just go with a breeder. Because then you know what you’re getting! Realistically shelter puppies, they’re not the ones that are at risk of not getting adopted. So a little bit less necessary as far as the rescuing side of things.

(KF) 29:25

So tell us a little bit about how you and Ellie transitioned from your nosework course into work. Tell us about your first field season.

Heather Nootbaar (HN) 29:38

While we were wrapping up our, at that time, most recent nosework course, another job posting passed by my eyes and it was with West which is where we have been for most of our field work. West is very open to hiring green and new handlers. So the process was applying, showing that you have a teachable dog that is interested, but they don’t have such high stakes or standards that they’re looking for. Because you are bringing your own dog, they’re not providing a dog.

(HN) 30:31

At that time, [Ellie] was around nine months old. So it’s still quite young to have started. But that was when we first had made contact, and then followed their scent training protocol. Ellie was already on Part Four by the time we had gotten that. She was already on odor. They kind of start you off at literally square one. But she was already on odor. So it was just a matter of getting the training aid sent to us and transitioning into the imprinting phase. And then we just filmed our training sessions, sent them in for feedback. It was really nice having, at that time, someone that was in the conservation field and knew what they were looking for to give me pointers. Because I had my nosework instructor, but it’s quite different than being an operational field team.

(HN) 31:30

We got to the point of going to our first field site, having our assessment on site. And it went horribly, horribly. It was her first time, obviously, on a wind farm. So I think the context was not there yet. We’ve been playing this search game in all of these different areas, but now we’re doing it under this big swooshy turbine thing. And I think it just took her three days of me thinking that my training was terrible. I failed her. And then it all clicked and we had a pretty successful first season. There [were] a lot of kinks to work out. But that was to be expected. And we’ve only ever grown as a team.

(HN) 32:37

The first season we were at a place that had quite a bit of birds that she was interested in when there wasn’t enough finds for her. So she was getting a little bored and found things to occupy her time. Which, fair, I guess, but also frustrating for me. But that only happened a few times throughout the season.

(HN) 33:07

Then the next year, we returned. And it’s just been really fun to see. This is now our third field season doing the wind farm work. And I’ve already noticed changes and the progression she’s had. She’s a pro at this point. Her first season, she was just a young dog in general. It was a lot to ask for. And now that she’s a three year old dog our relationship is better. We’ve had more training under our belt. It’s almost night and day from our first field season. It’s been really fun to watch the progression.

Kayla Fratt (KF) 33:52

Thank you for sharing that your first couple of days were awful. And there was a lot of work to be done. Even though you’ve done so much work and done a really good job prepping her and you had all the support you needed. It still can be really hard. Thank you for saying that. Because I think we don’t as a field. We don’t always admit that enough. That “she was really pretty interested in birds, and when she got bored or the going got tough that became a competing motivator.” You guys really had to contend with – especially that first year. But with maturity and time and work it’s going a lot better.

(KF) 34:38

It takes a village to keep K9 Conservationists running. One of our valued team members is Sunny Murphy, who runs Black Flower Content Writing. Sunny started out as a volunteer creating infographics based on our podcast episodes, but quickly earned her place as a paid member of the team. If you need a creative, enthusiastic voice to help your company or nonprofit with blog writing, social media planning and/or email newsletter campaigns – check out Black Flower Writing Services. I cannot recommend Sunny highly enough. Thanks and let’s get back to the episode.

(KF) 35:07

Shifting gears a little bit from that, how did we meet? Rachel and I were joking when we recorded this, that it was like if someone was giving a little speech at our wedding. How did we meet? Tell us don’t tell everyone about that.

Heather Nootbar (HN) 35:26

Like I mentioned, I had found Journey Dog Training when I was having some hiccups with Ellie’s general obedience, manners behaviors and things like that. She had a little bit of reactivity or engage disengage. So we found your look at that videos, love Leslie McDevitt. And actually, once we started down the path of the scent detection stuff and had been working, like I said, with West and the coordinators, giving us feedback. I was trying to widen our search area from inside to the front yard to then a park. I don’t know if it was too much too fast, but she was just a little bit disengaged. And so that’s when I, quote unquote, “hired” Kayla to give us some scent work help like we did the texting and videos.

(HN) 36:37

I knew she was involved with the conservation detection dog stuff through Instagram. And so I was like, “Hey, I’m trying to do this. Can you give me a little pointer on what I can do to help with this issue we’re going through right now?”  So I guess that was the beginning of our relationship. And then I think the next big thing was then you also started working with West. I guess throughout the years we were like internet friends, but not really face to face friends.

(HN) 37:21

Rachel had been working Barley in Indiana and you are all the way in Nebraska. I was in Illinois and you were like, “Hey, we’re looking for people to help get Barley to me.” And I know if I was separated from Ellie for three months, I would want to be reunited as soon as possible. So I’m in this middle leg to help. So I volunteered to help get Mr. Barley to Kayla. And so that was when we met at like, eight at night in a park in the middle of nowhere, Iowa. So that was our first face to face meeting.

Kayla Fratt (KF) 38:03

Gosh, I forgot that that was the first time we met. As you said we’d been kind of internet friends for so long. And you I think were the first person who kind of tried to hire me to get help with conservation dog stuff. And I remember being so overwhelmed and so terrified by all of your questions. Because I was like, “Oh my God, I’ve done this, like, once. I’ve handled a bunch of other dogs, but I didn’t train them from scratch. Like, what am I doing? Why is she giving me money?” And then you guys got the job and went and did well. And that was really nice to see.

(KF) 38:45

I think my field season ended before Rachel’s so I was going to be heading west to Colorado soon. And Barley because of his spider bite, or whatever it was that was going on with his leg that we talked about when Rachel was on, he wasn’t working anyway. So it was like “Well, why don’t we get him reunited with me before I head west.” Rather than Rachel and I had been planning on doing a handoff in Colorado a couple weeks later. Very grateful for your help there. We had the great Barley Underground Railroad going across the Midwest.

(KF) 39:18

After that we just kind of stayed in touch and got to be better and better friends from there, right? I don’t remember much more beyond that. And then I don’t quite know how we ended up where we are now.

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Heather Nootbar (HN) 39:35

I was just thinking of my future in this field and it seems so new. There’s tons of utilizations and uses of the methodology for these dogs but it’s not so widespread that you can just find a job anywhere. So I was thinking, “gosh, either I can get a job at one of these big outfits like Working Dogs for Conservation or Rogue Detection Teams. I’m sure it’s very hard, they don’t often put out a hiring call. So it was just waiting.

(HN) 40:14

I kind of liked the idea of being my own grassroots thing. But I didn’t know a ton about starting your own organization. I also did not have enough or felt like I did not have enough behind me to do so. And so then, when I saw K9 Conservationists was started I was like, “dang, that is definitely what I would love to be a part of.”

(HN) 40:43

I don’t even think I voiced that. I think Kayla was just like, “this is a lot for one person to do.” And Rachel and I somehow got in. And we have helped. Now we’re all on as co-founders trying to delegate so that more can get done than just having one person barely touch the surface and try and do everything. When there’s more hands in the pot, you can get a lot more done. So I think that was the hope.

Kayla Fratt (KF) 41:24

I can definitely confirm from my end. I filed the nonprofit paperwork for K9 Conservationists in March 2021. And was just like, “Okay, well, now, now I’ve got nonprofit status. Now I’m ready to be able to go apply for grants or whatever. At least on paper. And on the internet, this looks like a real thing.” But underneath, I was just panicking and behind and missing meetings. I was very, very overwhelmed with so much of the organizational stuff. And Rachel and I had talked quite a bit about me trying to bring her on.

(KF) 42:02

I think my instinct was (and maybe this is just based on the Working Dogs for Conservation model where they had four co-founders) it would be nice to have more than just the two of us. Rachel was kind of a shoo-in. And then just thinking through who else we knew, or who else was in the field. We didn’t want to try to poach someone from another organization, especially, and we wouldn’t have been successful because we aren’t offering paychecks. We knew that wasn’t a route we wanted to go, we’re really interested in collaborating with everyone else. But it wasn’t like we were going to try and steal someone from another organization. We also didn’t necessarily want to go with someone who was totally green and unproven on this, like, really important foundational level.

(KF) 42:52

Heather was definitely the first one and most consistent one that came up for us. I don’t even remember how the conversation went as far as asking you to come on. But I feel like you asked if I needed help. And were almost volunteering. And I was like, “How about instead of a volunteer, you dedicate all of your free time to this?

Heather Nootbar (HN) 43:18

I think I was just surprised that you had started your own thing. And was admiring that because you are clearly an orator and an educator. And that’s not my natural suit. I am more of the strategist, which is something we also realized later in the partnership, or triple whatever it is. We realized that we have really good strengths that balance each other out to make a good foundational team.

(HN) 43:57

I think I had just asked, “How did you decide to get that started?” And picking your brain a little bit to see if there was something I could do to help get it off the ground? And I think that’s when you were like, “Well, maybe you just join. We’ll see what happens.”

Kayla Fratt (KF) 44:20

To be totally selfish, I think a little bit was that I was worried you were going to get permanently hired elsewhere. Because you were very much so at that point in your career where I was like, “If I don’t ask her to step up and help out, I think Conservation Dogs Collective and Laura are going to take her. Or she’s going to take a permanent position with West or eventually WD4C or Rogue is going to be hiring.”

(KF) 44:47

So that was also potentially a little bit selfish because I was like “I need help. And I cannot do this alone.” Even going back to when I started K9 Conservationists, I didn’t feel ready to start K9 Conservationists. Sometimes I still don’t feel ready. But it came out of necessity where I no longer had the position with WB4C. I had been in talks with Laura with Conservation Dogs Collective about seeing if they needed help, or if I could join forces there. And it just didn’t really look like – they’ve got a lot of support. We’re still very, very good friends. And I admire and look up to them a lot. But they weren’t going to be able to take me on anytime soon.

(KF) 45:36

So I guess, at least on paper, I need to have something that looks official enough that if I was talking to a professor, it’s not just Kayla Fratt, Inc. And then dealing with the fallout of that as far as realizing how much more work there was to do. Then trying to make it into something that wasn’t just a document and actually was a full organization.

(KF) 46:01

That brings me to maybe my last question, which is what are some of the things you’re really excited about doing in the conservation dog field now? And where are you excited for us to go in the future, both as K9 Conservationists and as the field in general?

Heather Nootbar (HN) 46:18

I’m just really excited to see more uses of the dogs. What we’re trying to do is reach the ears of ecologists. We often have the dog training side. But that’s just more handlers and less jobs that we aren’t able to secure for everyone. So I think the thing I’m most excited about is just having the conservation dog methodology be something that a lot of scientists and researchers think of at the beginning of their studies. While they could be writing it into their study plan. Rather than maybe waiting until it’s the last option that they have, they’ve tried all of these different methods that haven’t been successful. And then now that their funding is quite low, they try the dog method.

(HN) 47:08

I think the field has been around. But it still feels like it’s in its infancy of really reaching broader audiences and different people. So I think I’m just excited to see it grow, and get out there. I mean, just in the four years that I’ve been entrenched in this world, I’ve seen a ton of growth. There was the first Wildlifetek Conservation Detection Dogs specific conference, that everyone got to collaborate and share all the projects that they’ve been working on. I think the community itself is growing, and we all are wanting to help each other because we want the method to succeed. And we’re also in it for the environment and planet at large. That’s why we’re all doing this work.

(HN) 48:03

I think the benefit of the collaboration far outweighs anything else. So that’s, I guess, what I’m most excited about. I’m also excited to do different projects. Like I said, [the] bulk of our work has been the wind farm stuff which has been an ideal project for Ellie and I. But I think exploring different species or environments would be a fun challenge. I’m excited that we already got our first consulting gig. I didn’t realize how much I like teaching. I didn’t think it came naturally. I remember when I first got to Kenya, I was talking to Edwin and I said, “Yeah, I’m quieter than Kayla,” which is still true.

Kayla Fratt (KF) 49:08

That’s not saying much though. [laughter]

Heather Nootbar (HN) 49:10

And I said, “I am gonna say all the things that I’m noticing. Let me know if I’m talking too much, or if she’s talked about it all.” But he was like, “No, I want to learn everything.” So by the end of the time that I was with them, he was like, “Yeah, I at first thought you were quiet, but you are not.” And I was like, “Oh, okay, good to know. I’m not as quiet as I think I am.” 

Kayla Fratt (KF) 49:40

That sounds like Edwin just telling it exactly how it is. He’s a very direct fella.

Heather Nootbar (HN) 49:47

My whole thing is that I don’t think I have the knowledge. Or it’s a little bit of impostor syndrome. You don’t realize how much you absorb, or how much I’ve learned? Just being in it for four years now it feels like it’s not enough. But at the same time you’ve learned quite a bit. And if I look back at where I started, I would have loved to have a “me” to look at to give me some sort of direction. How to progress within the field and things like that.

Kayla Fratt (KF) 50:31

That makes a lot of sense. And I think one of the things that is so exciting and valuable about the field is how much it’s growing right now. It does seem like, potentially, we’re in a little bit of a second wave where there are more people who have been in the field for three to five years. I think that’s a really useful model for people who want to get into the field. 

(KF) 51:02

Three, four or five years ago, when you and I were both trying to get into this field, I felt like I was looking at the models and being like, “Oh my gosh, okay. There’s Sam Wasser and Heath Smith and Meg Parker and Deb Woollett. And they’ve all been doing this for 20 years. I don’t know if the roadmap that they made is applicable for how I am going to go forward.” They definitely were the big trailblazers and helped so much. And it seems like there’s another wave coming through. Hopefully the way that we did it three, four or five years ago is a little bit more helpful for the people who are trying to do it right now.

(KF) 51:52

Is there anything else that I didn’t ask you about? Or that you wanted to circle back to, to wrap up?

Heather Nootbar (HN) 52:01

No, I think we literally covered as much as I can. Yeah.

Kayla Fratt (KF) 52:05

Excellent. Thank you so much for being a part of K9 Conservationists. We couldn’t do what we do without you. And for coming on the podcast. Maybe we’ll hear more from Rachel and Heather. In the future, I’m going to try not to bully them into podcasting if they don’t want to. Or putting more on their plates. But do know that both Heather and Rachel are doing so much work for canine conservationists, even if I’m the one whose voice you hear every week.

(KF) 52:32

For everyone who’s listening, you can support us in the work that we’re doing by heading over to K9conservationists.org. There you can check out our merch shop, you can just straight up donate to us, you can join Patreon where we have book clubs and coaching calls and one on one calls and all sorts of amazing stuff. You hear about it in the ads every week. And in the meantime, go ahead and get outside with your dog and be a K9 Conservationist in whatever way suits your passions and skill set. We will talk to you again next week!