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Putting Dogs To Work

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The Flathead Valley is thinking about putting dogs to work.

With the right training, canines can sniff out a number of materials, even very small traces of non-native invasive species.

Pepin is a 9-year-old Belgian Malinois and he can tell the difference between almost two dozen scats and species with just his nose. On Wednesday, he showed the Flathead Basin Commission just how talented he is, by finding hidden Wolverine scat in just seconds on a windy and wet afternoon. The commission and several other groups are thinking that dogs may be the answer to a problem that's getting closer and closer to the Valley.

"The idea is that dogs will help boat owners and anyone moving water or boats or anything between watersheds to detect it," said Pete Coppolillo, the executive director of Working Dogs for Conservation.

Coppolillo says two dogs will work in the pilot program this spring and summer. They'll be looking for three kinds of invasive species in the Flathead watershed: Zebra Mussels, Quagga Mussels, and Eurasian Aquatic Milfoil. The Milfoil is in other parts of Montana already, and the mussels have been spotted in Alberta, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

"A lot of swimmers know (mussels) because they'll hurt your feet, but they also encrust infrastructure," said Coppolillo.

Most of the dogs come from shelters and take at least nine weeks to get out into the field. After that, it takes about five weeks to learn a new scent.

The dogs are pretty energetic, and that's the kind of thing they look for when they pick a dog like Pepin.

They'll share how the pilot program went with many organizations across the state, including the DNRC, FWP and the National Parks Service.

"Really, it's an agency by agency decision, but water is a great thing because there's a lot of cooperation and collaboration around water," said Coppolillo.

Using dogs to find things is not a new idea, and Pepin himself has taken his talents around the nation, to Africa, and across the globe.

Programs like this pilot program in the Flathead are already up in running in Minnesota and California.

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