Thinking Bigger with Dr. Megan Parker

In this episode of K9 Conservationists, Kayla speaks with Meg Parker from the Center for Large Landscape Conservation to discuss thinking bigger in the world of conservation detection dogs.

Science Highlight: Factors That May Affect the Success of Scent Detection Dogs: Exploring Nonconventional Models of Preparation and Deployment

What does it mean to be “thinking bigger” in the field of conservation detection?

  • Work with academics more; ask more questions
  • Get more precise and better sampling
  • Look into better study designs
  • Continue expanding the field
  • Improve relationships with study designers, scientists, veterinarians, etc.
  • Improve welfare and training
  • Think beyond what is easiest and the way things have always been done
  • Where are you in the world and what are the issues there?
  • What can you do to help?
  • Think with a direction in mind and not just always going in and counting.

Where to find Meg Parker: Website

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AI-Generated Transcript

Kayla Fratt 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. My name is Kayla Fratt And I run canine conservationists, where we trained dogs to detect data for researchers, agencies and NGOs. Today I have the joy of talking to Megan Parker, who was one of the cofounders of working dogs for conservation. Before she before her current position. She is currently the project director with the Center for large landscape conservation, and we’re going to be talking about thinking bigger within the world of conservation detection dogs. I am super excited to share this interview with you all. Meg and I went for a brief walk and grab some coffee, I was on my way to Salt Lake City to go to Denver to go to Nebraska to start my fieldwork. She was about to pick up her son from returning from Mongolia and then head off to Rwanda. So it is a brief interview that is just chock full of ideas. And I’m so excited to see where the discussions that Meg sparks in this interview go. But before we get to it, we are going to dive into our science highlight. So this paper is titled factors that may affect the success of scent detection dogs exploring non conventional no models of preparation and deployment. This was written by Sarah Elizabeth Bo CR Linna, C. Fang and Nicholas J. Rutter was published in comparative cognition and behavior reviews in 2019. And our our little synopsis says, traditionally, scent detection dogs have been bred, raised and trained at designated training facilities. More recently, several organizations primarily in the conservation detection industry have employed non conventional models of scent detection, dog selection and preparation. And this commentary, they highlighted three of those non conventional methods which are the community based model, in which community members and their privately owned dogs are trained for deployment. Then the community Foster and model in which puppies live with foster families during training, and in the shelter based model in which dogs are sourced from shelters and rescues. Perhaps the most widely recognized community based approach is that used by search and rescue organizations. And this is a well established approach that typically deploys volunteer dog handler teams after they have completed relevant training and certification. There’s some benefits and increase social and welfare to the dog lower costs for breeding and sourcing dogs, and lower cost of deployment potentially, there’s also a lower burden of roaming dogs since the dogs can just go back to being pets for their people. There. However, it can be tricky to source dogs and plan well. For example, if a dog if a gap opens up on a given team, or there’s an increase in work, for whatever reason, it can be hard to source and get a dog trained up quickly when relying on community members and volunteers. Next up, there’s community foster Penn vet working dog Center is a great example of this, the dogs live in families that go to school every day. So they get the benefits of social and welfare support at home plus expert training while at school, the pro trainers get to focus on what they need. And basic manners are covered at home. Logistically, this can be kind of challenging, and does require a lot of support. It reduces breeding and raising costs, but sourcing the dogs can be hard. And again, you need quite a bit of support from kind of a solid network of volunteers to foster the dogs, and also infrastructure in order to be able to send these dogs back to school. Really, really cool model that,

Kayla Fratt 3:30
you know, for example, something that here at conservationists, I don’t see how we would be able to do something like that anytime soon, because we don’t have the capacity to send dogs out to training and then or to home life and then come back to us for training on a daily or even a couple times a week sort of basis. And then there’s the source from shelter and rescue model. I think most of our listeners are pretty familiar with this. This is how I got my dog barley. It’s how robe detection teams gets their dogs, it’s how scarless ecology gets their dogs, working dogs or conservation gets the majority of their dogs this way. Very common within the field. And there can be some reduced costs because obviously you’re not putting a bunch of sunk costs into a puppy. You’re also not having to maintain a breeding program. However, it can also be really tricky to figure out how to screen these dogs how to source them and can require quite a bit of relationship building with shelters and rescues. There are other upsides to though to sourcing an adult dog as mentioned in our episode of Skyler psychology, for example, you can screen the dogs for prey drive. And if they’re a relatively mature adult, you can get a really good idea of what their personality and temperament and work ethic is right off the bat versus you know, acquiring or breeding a puppy and then waiting to see how teenager hood shakes out at the other end and potentially sinking two years of training and support into a puppy that may not work out. So the biggest caveat that both the author’s mentioned and that of course caught my attention is that they’re the success rates and how they differ for each group is unknown. It’s this seems like the sort of data that probably could be found or could be collected. But as far as we know, nobody has done it yet. So without further ado, let’s go and get into it with Dr. Megan Parker from the Center for large landscape conservation.

Kayla Fratt 5:15
Patreon book club is in full swing, we just finished up detector dogs and scent movement by Tom auster camp, and we’re about to start canine ergonomics, the science of working dogs. To join our book club for three bucks a month head on over to conservationists. We also offer monthly group coaching sessions for aspiring handlers, puppy raisers and pros, as well as a monthly rotation of free webinars, workshops and roundtables with experts. Again, three bucks a month up to 25 bucks a month, kind of depending on what level of support you want to give and receive. Check that out at Conservationists, I hope to see you join us there soon.

Kayla Fratt 5:56
Right. Well, welcome to the podcast. Meg. What I basically wanted to ask you about is on the on James’s podcast, you said that one of the things you’d love to see our field doing is thinking bigger. Can you expand on that? Do you have any specific ideas? Just Just go?

Meg Parker 6:14
Oh, hey, thanks, Kayla. Um, I do think we need to think bigger all of us who are in this field, partly because it’s still nascent. You know, we’re still at the beginning of figuring out what dogs can do, how to do this best and how they conserve conservation and science. And so, you know, we can work with academics more and ask better questions, we can sample better, I think most of us on every project are over sampling. In the way, I think we can do more precise, better sampling and get more area covered, as well as like more reps, just by like working with biostatisticians and getting better study designs rather than doing it the way Oh, we just always do transects. Okay, let’s just do transits. And so I think really getting good study designs, and that’s whether we’re working with contractors or with academics are doing our own projects. I think we’re we’re doing a really great job of expanding the field and exploring disease and mechanisms of disease. But I think we can answer bigger questions for epidemiology, like how is disease, zoonotic disease moving across landscapes, and I think dogs are, you know, so well suited to that. Also being really careful working with vets and all of that, to make sure we’re doing this right. I just think expanding our teams is also part of thinking bigger, and that’s having really good veterinary medicine, really good study design, really good partners. And I think we’re at the point where we shouldn’t be just taking anything that comes along, there’s going to be projects that are really well suited for dogs. And there’s going to be projects that dogs probably shouldn’t be working on and being able to filter that. As the field expands, I think we also need to be looking forward, we need to be looking at how dogs can serve questions of climate change, climate adaptation, you know, species are moving around trying to get to higher ground and farther north. And dogs are great at answering those questions like historically, where have species been because dogs can find scat that’s old, and they can find a sign from where animals have been entered, or not currently living. And those are going to be really important questions. We can even think about carbon sequestration and and, you know, questions of how we are living on this planet, we can look at ecological corridors, and there’s really good science that’s emerging on like, how, how do we pick species to look at, like what an ecological corridor should be between protected areas? How wide should it be? Let’s look at that science and then apply dogs to get the information necessary to put into those models. So I think as as scientists develop good models, dogs can be such a great answer for providing data on the ground, verifying things, and, you know, collecting data that, like asks the next questions. We can be doing more in freshwater and saltwater ecosystems with dogs, where there’s really huge pinch points with climate change. And we can just be asking, like even how dogs can serve human communities better, especially human communities at risk of climate change. You know, I think we can just do we can think bigger, and we need to stop doing things the way we’ve always done them. I think more and more people are finding that they just want purebred dogs rather than the dogs that are at an increased risk of you know, needing rescue because it’s easier to work with breeders and puppies and I think we need to do a better job of welfare and training. We just need to do a better job all the way around of thinking beyond what is easiest and the way things have always been done? And I mean, for me, the whole goal is serving conservation and what needs to be served? And also what, like, where are you in the world? And what are the issues there? How can you fit in with some really deep thought and discussions with different partners, more partners and kind of like, higher level thinking?

Kayla Fratt (KF) 10:25
Yeah, that totally makes sense. And I know, it’s something I’ve thought about as far as, like, one of my dreams for canine conservationists would be to get us absorbed by a larger organization, so that we don’t have to be the ones who grow and hire the data scientist and hire the chemist and hire the veterinarian and all of that, because I don’t know if we’re ever going to be making enough money to have that sort of budget. But I would love to, like I love the idea of working at, you know, a biological research station as the dog team who can be embedded in with these larger, more diverse teams. Is that kind of, like that’s one of my dreams, does that kind of jam with what you’re thinking of?

Unknown Speaker 11:04
Yeah, I think I certainly think that that’s one avenue to pursue at, but I think all of us are just in different places. We’re in different places in our careers, we’re in different places geographically, and looking around to see what works like what is needed in Australia, what’s needed in Asia, what’s needed in Africa, you know, what are the big conservation questions that you’re running up against? And how can dog serve that? So I think there’s something about a very empathic mindset that can also come into play. And I think all of us are in conservation. For partly that reason we have we have empathy with the planet and with what we see as problems we’re not doing it for, for the money, we’re not doing it just because we’d like to work dogs, although that’s a big part of it. But like, how can we serve this, like these bigger questions? And regionally, how are we most effective, I also think we need to stop traveling so far with our dogs to huge carbon imprint, I think we need to start really helping our partners develop the capacity, you know, get off, get our dogs off the plane and start, they like helping programs in different areas, do better work and transfer technology, so they can actually get up and go and be independent, support people where we can across the world and, like, learn to, yeah, where our expertise are the best learn to offer that and not not mantel over, you know, these these small bits that can actually provide a lot of conflict, rather than just like, let’s just see what needs to get done and get it done. Yeah,

Kayla Fratt (KF) 12:39
yeah. Do you have any, like pie in the sky dream projects, or something that you would love to see dogs involved in? Or someone taking up as a challenge, or projects that you haven’t seen anyone doing quite yet?

Unknown Speaker 12:55
Oh, I think is about a million, like, right off the top of my head when I’m thinking of is it multispecies? Like some of the underserved species, I guess, you know, the, the, you know, like, what about, uh, you know, marine invertebrates, what’s happening on in tidal flats, what’s happening in freshwater estuary in zones? That is really these areas that are high risk from climate change? What’s happening in areas with these severe weather events that are occurring more and more frequently? You know, right here in Montana, we saw a three or 400 year flooding event, take out all the roads around Yellowstone, what do we need to be doing better and what’s at risk when our infrastructure fails, and actually, like, just really trying to get ahead of that, but looking at some of the species that aren’t charismatic, and sadly, don’t have the kind of funding. I mean, there’s, you know, like, we always struggle with trying to get invasive funding. And that’s, that’s a shame because invasives are a huge threat, especially to Island communities, but like, find Africa who’s doing really good and island invasive work, there’s lots of groups, so like pairing with them and taking it forward. I think there’s lots of groups that do a good job of, I’m thinking of rogue right now. Like they do a really good job of reaching out and contacting people and just saying, like, hey, you know, this is, you may want to think about it, doing it this way. Look, this is how dogs work. And actually, it’s quite entrepreneurial. But that’s an awesome way of just connecting with academics or projects that are also in their silos doing things the way they’ve always done them, like, you know, put on a radio collar follow them during this time of day. Well, radio collars have gotten way better and more advanced, we get better data, but what if we pair that with how dogs collect data and how what if we, you know, work with a biostatistician, so we’re just really effective and doing cutting edge science that actually serves conservation. I mean, I don’t know maybe Olympics are the next frontier. I have no idea idea.

Kayla Fratt (KF) 14:57
Yeah. My first thought when you said title flotsam. Scotch we’re gonna need some better booties but but I’m up for it. That sounds fun. Yeah, and I love you know, one of the things that I think pretty much all of us except for knio Forget about is toxicology. And that was one of the author’s thoughts when you were mentioning some of these human communities. Is that one of the things that was on your mind or what else comes up for these human communities that may need climate changes Huston’s?

Unknown Speaker 15:23
Yeah, yeah. And that’s, that’s a really good point. And Claire Nio has worked with groups and supported that for a long time. It’s like dogs, detecting different sort of fertilizers and poisons that are used in poaching, which is, you know, takes obvious real care as a trainer and handler, and can be done really effectively that the group in Spain does a beautiful job, you know, that can be really effective across Africa, I think we can do more out of the box, thinking about things like poaching and human trafficking that often goes hand in hand, when new roads go in. And, you know, we are going to see double the footprint of new roads over the next 25 years around the world. And think about that, like, double Think about how many roads, there are double that. And two thirds of these are going to be like new footprints in Asia, that’s, that’s going across really important areas. What do we need to be doing to collect data to get biodiversity baseline standards? And what can we do for the communities that are at risk of you know, having their relatively intact forest invaded by some sort of electrical line, right, as we green up and get more and more like turned to more electrical solutions for energy? Well, that’s a lot of transmission lines. What do we need to be doing when we’re producing electrical power? There’s obviously a lot of wind farm studies, which you’re familiar with. But like, what do we need to like, think further ahead? What is that going to be like, as we build more roads, more transmission lines, more railways? Like what’s at risk? And, you know, there’s species at risk, certainly, but there’s also communities at risk. And what what is it when you break up like an intact forest for a community? Well, we know zoonotic disease moves faster. We know human trafficking moves in we know, there’s a lot of impacts, and where can we bridge that sort of human ecological nexus with, with getting data and getting it ahead of time?

Kayla Fratt (KF) 17:17
Yeah, and it seems like one of the things you’re also mentioning is, you know, thinking with with a direction and mind and not just always going in and counting, not just going in and doing presence absence, not just always monitoring. And while those are all valid, and important, and whatever. And I think one of the problems that you know, myself, I certainly fall into this, and probably many of our conservation dog handler, listeners run into his we’re often operating from this, this standpoint of scarcity and panic that like, oh, my gosh, a contract came through my inbox, I have to take it. And, you know, one of the things that it sounds like is going to be really important going forward to this is figuring out how to be more proactive and build more of those partnerships so that we don’t have to operate from the standpoint of scarcity. And we can really show the power of this, this tool and help people with it.

Unknown Speaker 18:09
Yeah, that’s, that’s true, as well as the, we all need to eat, right. And we all want our jobs, and especially when you really liked doing what you’re doing, you take the job. And we also need to be more generous in like, Hey, this is not the right job. For me, actually, this awesome group that I know and I can work with, that’s already in North Carolina, maybe we can support them doing this. And maybe we can share a little bit or this group in Australia or this group wherever route, like I said, rather than put your dog on a plane and get on and go every, you know, every carbon mile. But we do need to like be a little generous, more generous amongst ourselves in sharing information. And yeah, helping get these directions set so that there’s like more abundance at the end. Both, you know, in terms of biodiversity, as well as work for conservation detection dog handlers. Yeah.

Kayla Fratt (KF) 19:00
I think this is going to be my last question, Senator, you have to go but do you know of anyone who has done a good job with some of these kind of remote consulting mentorship projects, you know, having just come back from Kenya and as much as I would love to go back? You know, I’d also it isn’t necessarily the most effective way to help to kind of have to jet myself in once a year and help out and the carbon miles and whatever. I’m almost thinking just mostly I was like, No, I need to interview on the podcast who has done this while Do you know of anyone? Or are we were writing the map still?

Unknown Speaker 19:35
I think we’re Yeah, I think we’re drawing the map because there’s, I mean, we have learned during the pandemic, we can do a lot on Zoom. There’s a lot you can’t do it. There’s you got to be on the ground and you know, hands on your dog, or a dog at some point and there’s huge value in showing up in person and having that personal relationship. And we bet we have a lot to learn about doing a better job with Zoom and phone calls and support and build networks, like when we’re in Kenya, or when we’re in someplace like building those personal relationships so that they’re more solid when you are remote. So I think, I think doing that, and certainly there are dogs that can do this work around the world, well, how do we select them? How do we train them? How do we care for them? You know, all of that is still sadly being discussed in places where it should be known. Right? So, you know, in Africa, there are amazing trainers and handlers, and maybe, you know, developing rosters of people that are trusted trainers and handlers and welfare experts. You know, there are some of those, but they’re, they’re sort of isolated. There’s the, you know, canine, you know, like more of the law enforcement aspects. And then there’s more the Yeah, security that there’s more of the conservation, and those worlds need to blend more.

Kayla Fratt (KF) 20:48
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Well, Megan, I know you have to go. So thank you for helping me out with this little minisode. I think that certainly got me thinking and maybe we’ll one of these days. One of us. Well, yeah, we’re both so busy. We’ll find a time to have more of a phone conversation, but I really appreciate it. Oh, thanks. It was such a pleasure. Nice to see you. So good to see you. And thank you all so much for listening. I hope you learned a lot and are feeling inspired to get outside and be a canine conservationist in whatever way suits your passions and skill set. You can find shownotes donate canine conservationists and join our Patreon at Canine Until next time.