Hello and welcome to the K9 Conservationists Podcast! We’ve got a new name. As our loyal listeners know, we’ve recently lost my beloved co-host Ursa. She’s not dead! She’s just working a new job that is not going to allow her to continue to go forward with the podcast and she is crazy busy right now. So after giving it a lot of thought, I’ve decided to pivot the focus of this podcast. Rather than focusing broadly on dog behavior, the K9 Conservationists podcast is going to focus on the field of conservation detection dogs.
We are going to interview wildlife biologists, community scientists, dog behavior researchers, and handlers throughout this amazing field. I do plan on continuing to talk a lot about dog behavior through that same enthusiastic science based lens that you guys are used to experiencing from me. I’ll also be taking behavior questions from our Patrons, so there’s a little bit of incentive so sign up for our Patreon. I really hope you decide to stick along for this ride. Again, I plan on bringing the same level of enthusiasm and nerdiness and dog-centric thinking to this endeavour.
As long as all of my interviews pan out the way that I’m hoping, I’ve got some really amazing episodes planned with Dr Susan Friedman talking about her humane hierarchy of interventions in training, the body language of scent work with Steve White, a fascinating episode on combining thermal imaging and scent detection dogs with wildlife researchers and so much more.
You guys can still find all the Canine Conversations Episodes. They are actually moving over to Journey Dog Training, so if you go over to journeydogtraining.com and hover over podcasts, you’ll see the Pandemic Puppy Podcast as well as well as Canine Conversations. So if you want to find a backlog of episodes you can find them there as well as within the podcast app of your choice. You’ll find episodes for K9 Conservationists over at K9Conservationists.org.
I really, truly want to thank all of our listeners for the support thus far. I really dearly love Canine Conversations and I’m going to miss producing it.I love getting to nerd out on dog behavior. But, my long term career goals are firmly oriented towards conservation detection dog work at this time. Again, Journey Dog Training is going to be out there providing support in the form of phone calls, courses, webinars, and free blogs, but more and more of my time is going to focus on conservation detection dog work.
To that end, I’m thrilled to announce the launch of the K9 Conservationists nonprofit. I just sent off all the paperwork for a 501c3 nonprofit status, and I hope that you’ll continue supporting this podcast by listening, sharing, and joining Patreon. This is going to help us cover the cost of not just this podcast but also our new field vehicle that lets Barley, Niffler, and I do our important work. I’m going to talk about that a little more in a moment, so stick around.
We are actually putting out a big fundraising plea after some unexpected bad news, so stay tuned for that. Once we’ve paid off the vehicle and the repairs that I’m hinting at, supporters of the K9 Conservationists nonprofits can expect to offer subsidies to our consultation services, funding for internships, and some important field gear like crash proof crates for the dogs. All this is going to help us get involved in amazing projects that might not have been able to afford conservation detection dogs otherwise, and offer paid internships to really deserving individuals.
So with all of those announcements out of the way, let’s do a quick refresher on conservation dog work and how I got involved. And again, stick around to hear a little bit about our fundraising plea towards the end.
Alright, conservation detection dog work is broadly similar to search and rescue dog work, or drug dog work, or any of those sorts of detection dog fields in that you are taking a dog and training that dog to find a scent. That could be using a ball to reward the dog when they find an invasive plant, could be using food to reward the dog when they find the scat of an endangered animal, or anything in between.
That work kind of broadly falls into three different categories. It can be divided up as endangered species ecological monitoring, invasive species work, and anti-poaching work or wildlife crime work. K9 Conservationists is going to focus broadly on the first two. In ecological monitoring work, we might be searching for scat. Biologists can find out all sorts of amazing information with scat. Scat is animal poop, and from that scientists can pull out things like dietary information, movement data, where an animal moves throughout the year, hormone data, DNA for relatedness, social status, stress levels, all sorts of things. The really cool thing about working with scat is that it actually allows you to get all that information without disturbing the animal. Working with conservation detection dogs is considered a noninvasive sampling procedure, which is really, really cool and really important to me. Also within ecological monitoring work could be having the dogs find things like carcasses. That’s what Barley and Niffler and I are going to be doing this coming summer. We’re going out to wind farms to find bat carcasses to help with ecological monitoring and impact understanding. Basically, we are counting dead bats to see what the windmills are doing to the local bat populations and potentially looking at solutions. That’s really, really exciting.
On the invasive species front, that could be anything from looking at boat inspections to try and prevent new zebra mussel infestations in a body of water, to coming in after a crew of volunteers has tried to pull all of the invasive weeds on a given hillside. The dogs and I would go through and try to find all the ones those volunteers missed. The invasive species work tends to either be on the front end trying to prevent or identify invasive species infestations, or it could be on the back end as we are assisting with the removal of a given invasive species.
Wildlife crime is not something I’m planning on getting K9 conservationists involved in, but we’ll see. That is much more working with law enforcement to do anti-poaching work. That could be searching at ports of entry or doing vehicle searches or searching shipping containers for things like ivory and pangolin scales. It’s super important work but honestly feels a little outside my realm of expertise right now. I do want to be cognizant of where my skills lie and where my knowledge lies.
That’s what a conservation detection dog does. I have a background as a field biologist. That’s what I went to college for and what I wanted to do when I grew up, even as a little kid.
My dad is a conservation biologist and when I had too much energy or wanted to hang out with him when he was busy he would send me out with a dragonfly net and tell me to catch as many dragonflies as I could, which is really hard. Dragonflies are really fast! He’d tell me to come back when I caught some, and we’d identify them to the species, we would sex them (figuring out which sex they are, which you can do with some bugs) and then we would preserve and pin them and put up big insect displays.
One of the other things that he would do when I was being a little bit “underfoot” one could say, he had a printout of the 40 acre farm that I grew up on, like an aerial view of the property. At least one summer he sent me out to find every single bird nest on the property and monitor it. When I was like ten, my dad was having me go out and do basically long term biological monitoring fieldwork. Unfortunately I never got any of that data published. So that’s kind of where this love came from for me. When I was a kid my big idols were Jane Goodall and Rachel Carson, and I had this book called Girls Who Looked Under Rocks and it’s all about amazing female naturalists. That’s really what I wanted to do.
When I first started falling in love with dog training, I had a little bit of an identity crisis because my whole life I had been the bug kid, or the bird kid. There were points in time where I wanted to be a lepidopterist, which is someone who studies butterflies, and then an odonotist, which is someone who studies dragonflies. Then as I got a little older I pivoted out of bugs and thought I really wanted to do avian cognition research, so bird brain stuff. (That was actually the original Fulbright I wrote. I’ve written two Fulbright grant proposals, and one was for studying bird cognition at University of Auckland).
As I was growing up I was going through all these different phases. I was a bright kid, and really ambitious. My school had the highest teen pregnancy rate in the state at the time I went there, so they just didn’t have a whole lot of resources. They had a lot more resources dedicated towards remedial math and those sorts of things versus AP courses, which is totally fine and that’s what the community needed. But for me, they dealt with the fact that I was smart and ambitious was they put me in classes with older kids. When I was a freshman in highschool I was taking classes mostly with juniors.
That led to me being able to take my junior year of highschool off. I spent the first semester of my junior year at this amazing environmental semester school called Conserve School. That school focused on experiential learning and environmental science. John Muir wrote an essay about riding out a windstorm in the top of a really tall tree in the Sierra Nevada, and we would get the entire class into this old red pine that overlooked the water and we would sit on its branches and it would hold us as we read that essay. Our gym class was canoeing, rock climbing, and survival skills. It was just spectacular, I was so lucky to go there. Unfortunately that school has since closed down. It really combined this amazing experiential learning and environmental focus and really rigorous education all in one.
My second semester of my junior year of high school I went to Panama. I had the luck of my host city being one of the cities in Panama that offered an agricultural option for their high school. In Panama in high school you have broad majors, so you kind of have focuses within your high schools, and you decide as you’re going into high school which one you’re interested in. I got to do agriculture, which meant that I was doing things like working with Rottweilers that herded goats in order to manage invasive weeds, or I was milking dairy cows every morning with my host family, I was doing cattle drives, again working with these Rottweilers. I was butchering chickens, which as a vegetarian, and I was vegetarian back at that time as well, was a fascinating experience, but really good for me. I’m really glad I got to do it. I’m kind of blabbering on and on about this, to help you understand a little bit about where this love of this field comes from.
When I got to college, I started falling in love with dog training but really felt a lot of cognitive dissonance with that because I wanted to be Jane Goodall! I wanted to be the person who went out there and lived among the trees and among the animals, and did long term behavioral research. That is where the dog behavior stuff does make sense. I’ve always been really fascinated by animal behavior, but I had always been focused on wild animal behavior.
Throughout college I took all sorts of amazing classes. Colorado College, my alma mater, does a really cool program where instead of taking several classes at a time throughout the semester, they do the block plan. You take one class at a time for three and a half weeks, then you have a 4 and a half day weekend and you start your next class on the following Monday.
For example, my ornithology class was 3.5 weeks long, and that included a nine day field trip to the Chiricahua mountains in Arizona to do flammulated owl mist netting, song bird mist netting, and we did studies on how Gambel’s quail reacted to different microclimates. It was just absolutely amazing to continue to get my feet wet in the field biology aspect of things. The other plus side of the block plan is that you get those 4.5 half day weekends once a month, I really continued honing my outdoor skills. I did a lot of rock climbing, a lot of white water kayaking. I just was really, really lucky to do all of that there.
That really solidified my love of doing ecological work and being outdoors, which brings me to what the actual field work of being a conservation detection dog handler looks like. It does of course vary quite a bit from job to job, but when Barley and I were doing zebra mussel inspections in Yellowstone National Park, we were basically hanging out under a pagoda with the other rangers, talking to people about invasive species, doing a lot of education and outreach. I had a cooler full of dead zebra mussels that I asked volunteers to hide on boats when I wasn’t looking, and Barley and I would do demonstrations of him doing his work. When a boat did come through that was seeking a launch permit, Barley and I would help with the inspection and make sure that they didn’t have zebra mussels on their boat. That was really cool. It was honestly, as far as this job goes, pretty cushy work. Quite repetitive for the dogs, but all the outreach really helped quite a lot. That’s one option.
Other options can be a lot more intense. When Barley and I were doing black footed ferret research last fall in 2020, that basically was getting up before dawn so that we could be at our field site as the sun was rising in order to keep the dogs cool. I had a GPS that had a 300 acre plot mapped out for me, usually in some weird shape like the letter “E” or something, just because that’s where the prairie dog towns were, and they wanted us to survey a prairie dog town. It was our job to walk across that search area in transects. Those transects may be spaced 100 meters apart or 300 meters apart, it kind of depended on the goal of the study. My job is to walk around with my GPS, try to walk in a straight line, keep an eye on Barley, make sure he’s searching all of the prairie dog holes. Also, I was watching out for things like rattlesnakes and skunks, and god knows what else.
Whenever he would make an alert, or lay down at a hole and said that there was a ferret there, if I could confirm it I would reward him, and if I couldn’t I praised him and we kept going.
When we did get those data uploaded to the computer, that night other field biologists would go and put camera traps out to confirm if the dogs were correct and try to get a population count on these black footed ferrets, which are ultra-endangered. The field work can kind of be anything in between and honestly the ferret work isn’t even the best example of how rugged it can be because it was open, flat desert.
I have tagged along on some other research projects where we are literally following a dude with a machete through the Costa Rican jungle, avoiding fer-de-lances and having monkeys shriek at us from above, and you’re just getting crazy rashes from the bushes because even though there’s a guy with a machete ahead of you, you’re still touching all sorts of crazy plants, and sliding on your butt down hillsides to try and keep up with the dog. And did I mention the snakes?!
You guys can hear the grin on my face- I love this stuff. It’s crazy, it’s terrible, it’s definitely all Type II fun. For someone like me, and hopefully like some of you, it is just a blast. On the worst days when you’re out there and you’re freezing cold and it’s pouring rain and there’s snakes everywhere and you’re covered in scratches, and your dog hasn’t found anything for hours or even days, it’s just such cool work.
We are going to cover this in a lot more detail going forward but I wanted to get the basics out of the way and kind of catch you up to speed on my story. I don’t think I’ve talked about my early education and my early passions on this show before.
I wanted to pivot now into talking a little bit more about the K9 conservationists nonprofit and the help that we need.
In March, 2021 I started putting together all the paperwork to get K9 conservationists filed as a nonprofit. I built the website, blah, blah, blah, and I started looking at a field vehicle for us. I have been thinking for a while that K9 conservationists would do well with a van of some sort that would allow us to have solar power out in the field, it would allow us to have higher clearance than my current Prius, and offset costs for our funders and partners because we would be able to provide our own field housing.
It would allow the dogs to stay in style and hopefully stay in comfort. One of the things that I’m hoping for with the Sprinter van, or with a van in general, is that because the dogs spend so much time in it and it moves locations, that should feel more comfortable to the dogs versus staying in a different hotel every time. It also reduces my setup, packing, etc. I’ve also lived out of vans before so it just makes a lot of sense. I set up a Craigslist alert on about 30 different cities- just anything I could think of that was within ten hours of Missoula and also in between California and Missoula because I was in California at the time and was thinking that I could pick something up on the way home.
In retrospect that was silly because you can’t drive two cars at the same time. A couple days in I got an alert and found a van. It is the van. It’s fully set up. I bought it from a young couple that had been living out of it for nine months. They were selling it because they had basically depleted their entire savings in order to live out of it for nine months and they needed to go back to work and restart their lives. It’s got solar, it’s got a bed, the bed is high enough that I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to get some crash proof dog crates underneath it, which is going to be awesome for safety for the dogs as we go out into the field. It has a kitchen that’s actually really well stocked. I’ve got a cute little closet, it’s got a solar shower, it’s got a pagoda so I can set up the dogs in the shade outside of the van as long as the weather is nice.
It’s just perfect. I bought it with the understanding that it needed new fuel injectors, which I did know was going to cost extra money, but that was also partly why I got such a good deal on it. I was able to pay for the van out of pocket, by basically emptying all of my savings including some money put away in stocks where I put away my stimulus checks. The money had grown a little bit, which was nice, and my mom did loan me two thousand dollars. Just to be totally forthcoming I have to pay her back.
Anyway, I bought the van and was really excited about it. I had a couple friends help me look through it, I got it inspected, and again we knew it needed new fuel injectors so I dropped it off at a diesel mechanic in Salt Lake City, which is where the van is currently, and I went on my way. I planned on buying a plane ticket to go down to Salt lake City and drive it back up to Missoula as soon as it was ready.
Except, at the time of recording it was four days ago, I got a call from my mechanic and he asked if I was sitting down, which is never a good thing to hear when you’re on the phone. So, I sat down and told him to go ahead . He let me know that it wasn’t just the fuel injectors- it actually needed an entire new engine, which is really unusual at the mileage this van was at. It’s only got 190 thousand miles. Most of these engines are pretty well known for going to 4 or 5 hundred thousand miles. So, that is obviously really, really bad news. He told me everything that they had done to confirm what the problem was. I actually really like this mechanic, and he told me that they’d actually known about this for a couple days but we’ve been trying to run all the tests and make sure that this was definitely it. This was the only option.
He also let me know that there’s pretty much no way that the people who sold me the vehicle could have known this unless they had swapped out the fuel injectors, so I don’t think I was “being had.” They quote me at a cost of replacing that engine of up to $24,000, which I do not have. I’m gonna be totally honest. As I said, I emptied my savings in order to buy the field vehicle for my brand new baby nonprofit, and I don’t have that. I don’t have $24,000 more sitting around. That’s dangerously close to my annual salary at my last job.
Luckily, I have looked around and found a used engine that’s going to bring our costs down to closer to like $15,000 which is a lot better, but still more money than I am able to pull out of my bank accounts. So, I am putting together a GoFundMe and just kind of coming to you guys asking for help. It’s a lot of money so anything that you can do will help. Even if you don’t have a cent to give, because I know that times are really really tough right now and that buying a field vehicle for conservation dog work seems like one of the least important nonprofits out there… I shouldn’t be saying it that way, but you know what I mean- there’s other nonprofits out there that also feel so worthy now, and I know people are really struggling.
Even if you can’t give at all I would really appreciate you sharing and telling your friends about this and really helping us get out there, and hopefully trying to get this field vehicle up and running for us. The good news is that the engine I found is from a rear end collision. The van that had it originally only had 74,000 miles on it, so hopefully that will help our new field vehicle last for many years to come, and I’m really excited about it. Again, I will drop the links in the show notes for where you can help donate. As I said, we’ve just sent out paperwork for 501c3 status so right now we’re doing this through GoFundMe and as far as I know it is not going to be tax deductible. In the future, donations to K9 conservationists will be.
So that’s where we’re at. I’ve spent a couple days kind of digesting all of this. I reached out to the original sellers and asked if they could take the van abc, or if they could do any cost sharing, and they couldn’t. That’s the risk with a used vehicle. I don’t really have any protection. I’ve looked into Lemon Laws and all those sorts of things and we are in kind of a tight spot, but I still feel like we can make this work. I’ve talked to my board for the nonprofit and they agree with this plan so we’re gonna go ahead and do it. Again, anything that you can do to help, even if it’s just sharing this fundraiser, I really appreciate it.
I think that’s it for housekeeping. The last thing I’ll say before I sign off here is that the episode that just dropped was Ursa’s goodbye episode. The episode that’s coming up was recorded before I decided to change the podcast over, so it’s still going to be the Canine Conversations you know and love. It’s with my dear friend Erin Jones talking about consent in dog training, and we may do a follow up episode or two with her as well with questions from our Patrons on Patreon.
As we’re going forward with the K9 conservationists rebranding, you can still expect to hear some of the really cool dog behavior work, dog behavior problem solving, all of those sorts of things, on this podcast feed.. I hope that you stick around. I haven’t written a new outro for the podcast yet, but I’m Kayla Fratt, you can find me at journeydogtraining.com, or K9conservationists.org. Anything you can do to support our fundraising efforts for our new field vehicle is going to be greatly appreciated. I do plan on offering some prizes and incentives to our top donors, so check out the GoFundMe page for more info on that. Thank you guys so much for listening, and I will be in your earbuds again soon. Bye!