By Barbara Lee

It’s a summer morning in Eugene’s Golden Gardens Park, and a man and dog are playing fetch. The dog sprints, leaps, bounds, and finishes with a ferocious tug-of-war for the saliva-covered ball.

Between rounds of fetch, both man and dog crouch down low over a crusty patch of dirt, the dog sniffing continuously. I see nothing to distinguish this spot from its surroundings, but it turns out to be the site of an inactive, underground turtle nest. The man is Heath Smith, who with Jennifer Hartman directs Rogue Detection Teams, a group that teaches and deploys rescued canines as detection dogs on conservation-related projects.

The dog is a rescued blue heeler named Pips, who at one point was on a list to be euthanized because of multiple failed placements. At 13 years old, Pips is now a detection dog in training to help save native turtles. Today, Pips shares the stage with another detection veteran, Filson, and new kid on the block, Whisper. All three are rescued dogs and all are fetch-crazy.

Smith and Hartman are in Golden Gardens Park to begin an innovative experiment teaching detection canines to find the nests of Northwestern pond turtles — a vulnerable native species. This shy reptile is in danger of disappearing from Oregon and Washington waterways; if more of their nests are found and protected, the hope is that the survival rate for the species will rise.

Rescue Dogs Become Detection Dogs

“Many high energy breeds end up as misfits in shelters,” explains Hartman. “We look for dogs that want to continuously run and be occupied, and most importantly, we look for a single-minded need to play fetch.”

The fetching fixation allows Hartman to reward them when they find a buried turtle nest. And she says she loves the idea of rescued animals that are themselves animal rescuers. To teach a detection dog to locate something specific, such as buried turtle nests, the handler repeatedly exposes the animal to the odors associated with it, followed by a reward in the form of a pleasurable activity, like fetch. The dog learns to search for and find the smell’s origin for more rewards. A dog’s nose has many times more scent receptors than a human nose, along with nostrils that work independently from one another. By applying its super-charged smelling ability to urine, blood, saliva, tracks, and scat, a detection dog is often able to discern another animal’s direction of travel, diet, timing, condition, location, and more. 

Northwestern pond turtle nests have a strong urine scent because the female turtle fills up on water before her slow walk to a nest site, then pees on the site where she will dig to soften the ground. After laying five to eight eggs and covering them with urine-softened dirt, she returns to the pond, stream, or wetlands she started from. The eggs remain underground, hatching into tiny, bottle cap-sized youngsters that eventually claw their way to the surface and head to water.

Protecting The Turtles

When Eugene parks ecologist Lauri Holts and her team find a Northwestern pond turtle nest, they place a wire grate over it so that marauding animals can’t eat the eggs or new hatchlings. This year, Holts discovered an unprecedented 20 nests, both active and inactive, at Golden Gardens Park. She also found a similar number of nests of the only other turtle species commonly seen in the area, the invasive red-eared slider. These discoveries make the park a valuable teaching site for the dogs because nest locations are known and accessible.

Red-eared sliders have long been a popular pet species. Some pet sliders have been illegally released into waterways around the world where they are not native. In Oregon and many other areas, they pose a threat to native turtles and other animals, and a possible risk of salmonella to humans. The Northwestern pond turtle is about the size of a dessert plate while an adult red-eared slider is roughly the size of a dinner plate. Red-eared sliders are also more aggressive, lay more eggs at a time, and generally out-compete the smaller species for food, nesting spots, basking logs, and breeding sites. In Eugene, park staff destroy any slider nests that they find and remove living sliders to be euthanized.

Proving Their Skills

The Northwestern pond turtle lays eggs in spring, giving the canine stars of the Rogue Detection Teams the chance to show their nest-finding skills. Jason Reilly, a Bureau of Land Management wildlife biologist, says the detection teams’ experiment may provide a helpful new option for his work group in Southern Oregon.

The BLM and the National Forest Service together co-manage the 37-mile Wild and Scenic-designated stretch of the Rogue River, an area with a significant Northwestern pond turtle population. Over the past few years, Reilly and other BLM staff have used personal time to spend 12 days over four separate raft trips gathering information about turtles in this section.

According to Reilly, estimating the area’s turtle population is a challenge. He reports that this human-averse species often jumps from a log or rock into water at the first sign of an approaching person. Sometimes, working underwater is the only way to either view or capture a turtle. But, Reilly states, the biggest problem is that “we didn’t find a single nest. Not one.”

This stretch of the Rogue River runs through terrain that is rough, rocky, brushy, and in many places, steep, loaded with poison oak and ticks, and hot. Using detection dogs in this terrain doesn’t just sound smart to Reilly and his colleagues, it sounds necessary.

But why would detection teams working along the Rogue River need the ability to pick up scents from a distance? After all, turtles are famous for being slow and never venturing far. While the Northwestern pond turtle tends to be slow on land, it is known to travel up to a half mile cross-country to find a desirable nest site. As for its ability to walk up and down the steep terrain of the Rogue River, Jason Reilly describes an event that may amaze you.

Reilly’s team became known as “the turtle guys” to the guides, rafters, and hikers they would encounter on the river. One day, he says, they were moving at about the same speed as two hikers on a high section of the trail, along a steep wall more than 200 feet above the river. “Suddenly, the hikers yelled down to us, saying that there were two turtle nests up there,” Reilly says. “It seemed impossible, but we found out that it was true. One of the nests even had hatchlings.”

Reilly theorizes that the turtles may have an instinct, or perhaps some form of ancient memory or sense about the flooding that has periodically happened in the area, and have adapted by digging their nests on a flat spot above the high water mark.

Looking To The Future

Having omnivorous Northwestern pond turtles in the environment helps keep the pond clean and healthy. “And, in the bigger picture,” says Holts, “when you help a specific native species survive, you are also helping to protect the whole ecosystem of native flora and fauna that exists there. This includes species that may, in the future, benefit humankind in unknown ways large and small.”

Holts paused for a moment before continuing. “Also, I hope that in the future, each of us will be able to visit a pond and still have a chance to see a native turtle basking on a log. That’s what I hope for . . . the chance to see that as nature intended.”