Field Work Preparation

In this episode of K9 Conservationists, Kayla talks about field work preparation for the upcoming project.

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Chat-GPT Generated, Edited by Kayla

In this episode, Kayla Fratt, co-founder of K9 Conservationists, shares insights into her expedition to Guatemala’s rainforests, the challenges they faced, and the meticulous training their canine companions undergo.

Exploring Guatemala’s Rainforests:

  • Location: The team is heading to Peten, Guatemala to conduct ecological research in the dense jungle.
  • Collaboration: K9Conservationists partners with Ellen Dymit from Oregon State University and local experts for a study on neo-tropical foodweb meta barcoding.
  • Objective: The dogs are trained to detect jaguar, puma, ocelot, and other scats, helping researchers understand the local food chain.

The Genesis of the Project:

  • Networking: Kayla’s connections with experts like Dr. Taal Levi and Ellen Dymit led to a collaboration transcending geographical boundaries.
  • Power of Relationships: The initiative was born from virtual connections, showcasing the potential of outreach and communication in the conservation field.

Navigating Snake Territory:

  • Antivenin Preparation: Recognizing the potential threat of snakebites, the team took proactive steps to ensure they were well-prepared. They acquired antivenin vials, a critical medical resource used to counteract the effects of snake venom. Having these vials on hand provided an emergency response plan in case of a snakebite incident.
  • Snake Behavior Awareness: To mitigate the risk of snake encounters, the team familiarized themselves with the behavior patterns of local venomous snake species. They gathered information about the times of day when snakes are most active, the areas they frequent, and their typical behaviors. This knowledge allowed them to adjust their search strategies and movements accordingly.
  • Terrain Assessment: Before embarking on their fieldwork, the team assessed the terrain carefully to identify potential snake habitats and hiding spots. By understanding the snakes’ preferred environments, they could take precautionary measures to avoid those areas and minimize the chances of encountering snakes.
  • Alert Canine Training: The training of their canine companions played a pivotal role in snake safety. The dogs were taught to detect scents associated with snakes, helping to alert the team to the presence of snakes nearby. This early detection capability allowed the team to take evasive action and maintain a safe distance from potential threats.
  • Strategic Movement: During their fieldwork, the team adopted careful movement patterns to reduce the risk of accidentally stumbling upon a snake. They chose pathways and search areas with clear visibility, minimizing the likelihood of stepping on or startling a snake.
  • Early Morning Searches: The team strategically scheduled their searches during the early morning hours when temperatures were cooler. Snakes tend to be less active during these hours, reducing the likelihood of encountering them.
  • Protective Gear: The team wore appropriate protective clothing, such as sturdy boots and long pants, to minimize the risk of snakebites. These garments provided an additional layer of defense against potential snake encounters.
  • First Aid and Emergency Response: In addition to having antivenin on hand, the team carried first aid supplies and was well-versed in snakebite treatment protocols. This level of preparedness ensured that they could respond swiftly and effectively in case of an emergency.

Canine Training for Conservation:

  • Training Regimen: Detailed training prepares dogs like Niffler and Barley for diverse conditions, including expanding search areas and honing recall and alert behaviors.
  • Invaluable Partners: The dogs’ training makes them indispensable assets for ecological research.

A Surprising Discovery:

  • Wild Scat Find: In El Salvador, Niffler’s sharp olfactory senses lead to the discovery of wild scat, showcasing the practical application of their training.

Looking Forward:

  • Anticipation: The episode concludes with excitement for the team’s upcoming adventure in the Guatemalan rainforest.
  • Dedicated Mission: K9Conservationists remains committed to ecological research and conservation through their remarkable canine companions.

Transcript (AI-Generated)

Kayla Fratt  00:10

Hello and welcome to the K9Conservationists podcast, where we’re positively obsessed with conservation detection dogs. Join us every week to discuss detection, training, welfare, conservation, biology and everything in between. I’m Kayla Fratt, one of the cofounders of K9Conservationists, where we train dogs to detect data for land managers, researchers, agencies, NGOs, and just about anyone else who wants to work with us and our dogs. 

Today is hopefully going to be a pretty brief episode, I am recording it as a little bit of an emergency, because I am behind on recording, and I’m about to head into the jungles of Guatemala, and not have cell service, WiFi, etc, for a little bit of time. So this is a heads up that you may miss a week of K9Conservationists. It’s not because we’ve forgotten about you. It’s not because we don’t love you. It’s because I am in the field and might end up being a week or two behind on podcasts. 

Needing to warn you that we might miss a week of episodes also inspired me to share a little bit more about the research that we’re going to be doing and kind of how it came about. So we’re currently in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala, which is on the shores of Lake Atitlan, which is the deepest lake in Central America. It’s a volcanic lake, there are still volcanoes on the shores. It’s absolutely beautiful. And we are in route to the potential to call area to explore the Silva Maya, the Mayan Mayan forest up in kind of, if you imagine Guatemala in the corner where it is nearest to the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico and Belize, that’s where we’re heading. We’re currently running a little bit behind. Because our field vehicle, the van that we’ve been living out of and traveling in, has a broken latch right now. So every time we hit a speed bump a terminal, the door is flying open, which obviously is very dangerous and quite frightening. And there’s a lot of speed bumps in Guatemala. So we are running a little bit behind because the mechanics are taking some time to figure out how to fix it, but hopefully we will get on the road soon. 

So once we do get to Potanin, we’re working primarily with Ellen Dymit, who’s a PhD student at Oregon State University, along with running Garcia and others from Guatemala and WCS. We’re working alongside them to help Ellen with her research on neo-tropical foodweb meta barcoding. So the dogs are going to be finding a lot of scat and then we’re using that or she’s going to be using that to figure out who’s eating home and build a more thorough foodweb for for the area. We’re going to try to get her on the podcast both before and after fieldwork so she can explain her research much better. But I’m here to talk to you a little bit about how this job came about and some of the prep work that we’ve done to make sure that we’re ready to go when we get to the jungle. 

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K9Conservationists offers several on demand webinars to help you and your dog go along in your journey as a conservation dog team. Our current on demand webinars are all roughly one hour long and priced at $25. They include a puppy network all about raising and training a conservation puppy found it alerts and changes of behavior. And what you’re looking for teaching your dog a target folder, find these three webinars, along with jackets, treat pouches, mugs, bento boxes, and more over at our website, 

So I think it’s important to kind of talk a little bit of how this job came about because it does show and highlight some of the power of outreach and communication and networking, as opposed to just applying for jobs or just applying for grants. So I have known Taal Levy, who is a professor at Oregon State University through the internet for a couple of years now. And I actually know him because my coworker the first summer that I did on the wind farm at West, Susie Dunham knows him quite well. They both work at OSU. And she introduced me to him as a potential really good mentor or advisor for a potential graduate or PhD program, which is something I’m very interested in starting soon.

So he and I have known each other over the internet for a little while. And then Ellen separately, also was introduced to me, actually, several years ago, now she was studying in, she got her master’s in Norway. And at the same time, one of my dear friends from undergrad Luke was studying was getting his PhD in Norway. They got to know each other. She was really interested in the scat dogs and we did a couple of phone calls, kind of talking about what it takes to get into this field, what it might look like, how it may be useful for her research, and honestly, I kind of forgot about those conversations. Until when I tweeted, I was on Twitter. And I tweeted about some of our travels so far in Mexico and you know, the fact that we’re really excited to meet up with biologists and researchers all across Central America. And Taal, who again is he’s Ellen’s PhD advisor tweeted back at me and asked if I’d be interested in a project. So after a couple of seconds of deep breathing because I was very excited about this idea, I shot back a tweet at him and said, Get those shoot you an email. And then a couple of phone calls followed, we worked out a budget, we worked out a plan. And here we go, now we’re off, we’re off. 

So all of that took place in November of 2022. And it’s now February 2 2023, as I’m recording, and we’re hoping to be in the field by Monday, the sixth to the very latest, hopefully. So again, I think that just really highlights like I’ve known both tall and Adela Elon through the internet for several years now. But it’s taken us quite a while to get to the point where we’re actually working together. I’m really, really excited about this project. Elon is doing some really cool research that again, I’m not at liberty to share yet she may be able to share in her episodes. Our we might have to wait until papers are published. But it’s just it’s I’m really, really excited to be working with these people in Roni, who is from the again, Guatemalan Wildlife Conservation Society is just awesome. I’m so thrilled to be working with them. And we’re going to be working in a very, very cool area of just new tropical rainforest and Mayan ruins and all sorts of really, really cool animals. And yeah, it’s gonna be really, really neat, and also very challenging, in a lot of ways, which we’ll get into. So as far as preparing for this, the biggest thing that we were working on was physical recovery for barley and then making sure that niffler was ready to change his transition away from wind farm work, or to expand from his wind farm work into something that has much more into something that’s quite different, which is searching in new tropical rainforest. 

So we’ll start with Barley, as I hinted at, in our update episode of Barley tore his CCL, his cruciate ligament, which is kind of the dog equivalent of an ACL, on October 1 of 2022. So, literally two days after we finished up our wind farm work, he tore his ACL. And that happened when he was playing fetch with a dear friend’s seven year old son. The ball bounced badly, Barley twisted badly. And you know, stuff happens. We generally are extremely careful with our dogs playing fetch for exactly this reason. But I this is a dear friend’s child who has known Barley for years and his mom is a dog trainer and he’s extremely savvy, so I don’t blame anyone. This is a sort of thing that can easily happen. Even you know, it could have happened when I was throwing the ball in the field. 

So we did get Barley surgery. So that’s a tplo surgery, it’s pretty invasive. What basically happens is instead of repairing the ligament itself, as we do with human ACL surgeries, the bone is actually sawed off at the top and then the the tibial the to the tibia, which is why it’s a tplo is actually sawed off and then rotated to make a flatter plane for that femur to rest on because of the the law. We’re gonna we’re gonna get a whole episode done on this. But anyway, it’s a big surgery. Really, really intense recovery barley for the first like two weeks, was in quite a lot of pain. He was growling at me if I tried to ice the surgery site. He it was really really rough. It was very difficult to do his range of motion exercises and everything for like the first week or two he was also really cold because they shaved pretty much his entire bum. And then all the way down to his ankle. Poor guy, but we did get the go ahead from our vet and our veterinary he was really awesome. Shout out to powers emergency veterinary in Colorado Springs, they gave us the go ahead to go ahead and start this Pan American highway trip. And then we worked remotely with Dr. Leslie Eide from The Total Canine to for the last two months, so the month of December in January, to ensure that Barley was kind of getting all the physical conditioning he needed. And I’m not gonna go too too deep into that because Dr. Eide has agreed to come on the podcast, and I’ll record as soon as we’re out of the jungle with her. 

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But we have basically gotten the clear for Barley to go ahead and go back to work, we’re still going to be really cautious with Fache, in particular, but he is allowed to run and jump and twist and do most of his normal things. We’re just going to try to keep the fetch intensity really low for a while until we’re really, really sure that everything looks good, but we did get X rays to confirm that healing looks great. And based on his gait, and his progress with all of his intense intense workouts, he’s, he’s looking really good right now. So then for niffler, we were really focused, or I was really focused on both expanding his search area, and then training him to work through the really thick underbrush in the heat and the vegetation and you know, the terrain that we’re going to be encountering over in Putin. So the expanding search area is relatively straightforward. Generally, what I will do is I time how long it takes for me to walk from point A to point B, and then I place my target and then I go back and I get the dog and I use that as a way to kind of gauge roughly how long it’s going to take for the dog to find that odor. Obviously, that’s all dependent on air currents and everything. But so I started out maybe walking 10 minutes away from the van on placing a scat, coming back, letting let sit for a while, and then taking him out and searching for that. The other way that you can expand searching is if you wanted to make that into a 20 minute search instead of a 10 minute search, you walk out 10 minutes in one direction, place that scat and then do a search 10 minutes in the other direction before coming back. 

So we’ve been really trying to work Niffler up to get him kind of over that 30 minute hump. As we’ve talked about before on this show our windfarm searches generally range between 10 and 20, maybe 25 minutes. So it’s really important to help Niffler understand that searches can and will last longer. And then we’ve also been fortunate in that we’re already we’re not on site, we’re in the Pacific dry rainforest at this point or dry forest. 

But we’ve been able to do a lot more searches, kind of helping Niffler learn to push through intense brush and, and work in these kind of humid, these humid conditions that are going to be much more typical of our field site when we get over to pretend I’m also really, really grateful, again, kind of going back to Barley, that Barley is going to be able to work because this is Niffler’s first big jump off in a project and I’m very, very happy to have Barley as backup as well and they’ll probably share duties relatively evenly at first. I’d like to, if Niffler is is showing that he’s up for it, I’d like to give Barley some more breaks. But we’ll see; Barley is looking really, really good right now and doesn’t seem to need it. I’m just protective and scared, and I love him very much. 

So then the next thing that I’ve been really worried about, or really the first thing I was worried about when we started talking about this project was snakes. So where we’re going to be there are rattlesnakes, Bushmaster, fertil, Lance, and coral snakes, to name a few. There are also eyelash Vipers and a couple others that just generally, while you wouldn’t want to pick them up, and certainly wouldn’t want to get bitten, they’re not as likely to to be a problem as the Rattlesnakes for Lance’s and Bushmasters. In particular, as well as the coral. So though coral snakes tend to be a little bit less aggressive generally. And all three of those groups of snakes that I’ve mentioned, are pretty heavily camouflaged and could be just about anywhere. And having a dog bitten by a snake is one of my worst nightmares. I’m very very nervous about it. I especially in like thick forest undergrowth, I am just, it’s hard to imagine searching while also keeping your dog safe around some of these snakes. So what we’ve done so far, so after speaking to Paul Bunker a little bit about it, he gave me some good advice about some medical things that he tends to carry in his pack. So I went to Guana vet in Liberia, Costa Rica, and asked them if I could get some IV, like an IV kit to keep because if, if the dog has bitten, and we’re in route to the vet, in theory, keeping them really hydrated is going to help quite a bit.

So I went to the vet, and I asked for that, and the vet tech actually looked at me and said, Hang on, I’m gonna go talk to the vet, I think we might have something better for you. And then she comes back 20 minutes later, and has in her hand a vial of antivenin. So I was sold, I sold a vial of antivenin that should work for the three groups of snakes that were most worried about. And I actually ended up going back and buying two more, well, I had to order them through this vet. So now we have three vials. Two of the three vials, as long as they’re not used by us are destined for other conservation dog programs. So I’m kind of mewling them around to various people. And we do know this antivenin is intense. The anaphylactic reaction to the antivenin can be as bad as the venom itself. So it is kind of a last resort, but it is very nice to have in my field kit. And then otherwise, as far as snake prep, I’ve been speaking to Rodney and some of the others about, you know, kind of times of day, areas, and other behavior of the snakes to be aware of, we’re still gathering a lot of that info. And hopefully, we’ll be able to get more of it once we’re in person on site. So that we can hopefully time and time our search strategy accordingly. 

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Then I’ve also been really working on helping the dogs work on their field safety skills. So their recalls, their down at a distance, those sorts of things. Although, again, these snakes are so cryptic that I think what is most likely to happen is that the dog is searching appropriately. He’s either cornering or in odor or just walking on the trail and none of us see or notice the snake and the snake gets stepped on. So we’re really, really hoping that doesn’t happen and we’re doing everything we can to prevent it. But it is just a fact of life in areas with snakes, that it is a risk. So hopefully we’re going to be searching early enough in the morning that it’s cool enough and they’re not out and we’ll be able to work through it that way. 

I will also say as we’ve been preparing for this, the other thing that has been making me a little bit nervous is that our scat samples that we received from WCS, while we actually got a really good number of scat samples, I’m very excited about the number of samples that they were able to provide us, they were all very dehydrated so they’re so dry that if you pick up one of the little turds, they crumble, so we’ve been working a little bit trying to ensure that the dogs are able to understand that a fresh scat sample, a wetter scat sample and those sorts of things are also appropriate for them to alert on. Luckily, Barley is a pretty liberal dog, so I’m not super worried about it. We also have a couple of latrine sites that we’ll be able to visit. As soon as we get to the field site, reward the dogs for heading up on those latrine sites. And then carry on. And hopefully that’ll help kind of bridge that gap. 

I know this is something that rug detection talks about all the time. It’s something we’ve done in the past, and it’s really important is helping with dogs transition from whatever samples you were able to get in the mail, or pickup or whatever, to the wild samples that are much fresher and more accurate. So we are really excited to do that. We also are missing a couple of the species that we were hoping to survey for. They just didn’t have samples for them at all. So we’re really hoping that again, the dogs are going to be able to generalize to kind of an entire guild of species, rather than staying overly specific to just the species that they have been trained on. 

And I’m not mentioning the species as of yet, because I have to confirm with Ellen and WCS exactly what we’re allowed to say. So I’m not being coy, just to be coy, but um, we do have to be careful with client confidentiality and all of these sorts of things. So just just know that we’re, we’re, we’re working on a group of species. All right. 

So I do have one really exciting story to share before we sign off here. So when I was training the boys over in Elmo SOTA, El Salvador, so we were just doing a training round while I was there for some tourism. Niffler was doing a lovely search, we were out for about 30-35 minutes, which is you know, as we said, starting to break that 30 minute barrier, very happy with him. And right, as we turned around, we had just crossed a bridge, the road was curving up into the left, right, as we turned around, and I called him back, he, he starts running towards me, and then stop so quickly that he almost flipped himself over, he literally like skids in the gravel, turns around, sniffed the ground really, really intensively and then drops into his alert, as soon as his nose hits something. And I had not placed a scat there yet. He had actually already found all three of the scats that I had placed out on this, this training transect. And we had just walked a little bit past the last one, so that he didn’t learn that, you know, we turned around at a sample every single time. So I walked over, and I was like, I don’t believe it. But I did see him, you know, I saw the change of behavior. And it we looked, it looked legit. And I kind of start poking around near his paws where, where, you know, he’s been trained to have the have the sample in between his front paws. And lo and behold, I find a little pile of turds full of hair and a bone. And we don’t know what species they are, we were up in a really remote, mountainous, again, dry Pacific Forest area of El Salvador. Based on the size, I can say it probably was not Jaguar or Puma. It was way too small for that, but we don’t really know what it was. But Niffler has had his first wildf find, and we throw a huge party for that. Again, because this project, we’re actually really hoping well, the dogs are going to remain liberal and alert us to a variety of scouts from the same guild, we were able to just go ahead and reward him for that, which would not have been the case if we were being really species specific on this project. But very exciting. I yeah, I’m very, very proud of little, little boy Niffler. And, yeah, we’re really excited to get to the field. So without further ado, I’m gonna let you all go. This was K9Conservationists. We hope that this episode inspired you to get outside and be a canine conservationist in whatever way suits your passions and skill set. You can find show notes, donate to K9Conservationists and join our Patreon at Until next time, and as I said, it might be a week late.