Chesapeake Bay Nutria Eradication Project
Northeast Region


Detector Dogs

History of Canines on the Chesapeake Bay Nutria Eradication Project

Early use of nutria hunting dogs was critical in the eradication campaign.

Early use of nutria hunting dogs was critical in the eradication
campaign. USDA photo

The use of canines to assist with nutria detection and eradication efforts is not a new concept. When nutria populations were high, personally owned dogs were used by local trappers and later by CBNEP wildlife specialists to trail and bay nutria for their handlers. CBNEP specialists found that once dogs were specifically trained for nutria detection they were particularly useful for capturing nutria in low densities and reduced the time required to remove populations. The use of these “hunting” dogs has played an integral role in nutria eradication from the Delmarva Peninsula, and has accounted for the direct removal of 867 nutria in remote areas where other means of location and removal would not have been possible.

As the CBNEP entered the final stages of the eradication effort, training and maintaining a hunting dog program proved difficult. Training opportunities dwindled, employees left the program taking their personal dogs with them, and older dogs were retired. The CBNEP Management Team determined that dogs were critical to the program’s long term success, but in order to remain effective, the CBNEP Dog Program had to adapt to address the changing nature of the eradication effort. Accordingly, the CBNEP shifted focus from employee-owned hunting dogs to agency-owned dogs that keyed in on detecting nutria scat. Using agency-owned dogs ensures consistent training following specific protocols to meet validation standards, and allows the CBNEP to quantify the reliability of dogs in field conditions, thus providing greater confidence that failure to detect nutria is meaningful.
Nutria Detector Dog Program

The Nutria Detector Dog Program was developed through a partnership between USDA Wildlife Services and The National Detector Dog Training Center. USDA photo

The Nutria Detector Dog Program was developed through a partnership between USDA Wildlife Services and The National Detector Dog Training Center.

In 2014, the CBNEP partnered with the National Detector Dog Training Center (NDDTC) to develop the framework for the Nutria Detector Dog Program and to professionally train canine/handler teams. The NDDTC trains detector canines for various agencies including U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on targets ranging from agricultural products to contraband wildlife items. The NDDTC trains canines to work in airports, on borders, in cargo warehouses, and postal facilities. The “Beagle Brigade”, one of the more famous programs employing NDDTC trained handler/canine teams, uses beagles to detect unauthorized meats, fruits, and vegetables in airports throughout the United States.

The first step in developing canine/handler teams was finding the right dogs for the job! Staff from the CBNEP helped NDDTC with the canine procurement process and searched rescue shelters and breeders throughout Maryland and surrounding states. The staff looked for canines with a friendly disposition, between the ages of one to three years that had high toy drive (obsessed with playing fetch or tug). Before canines could officially enter the training program, they had to pass a series of tests to ensure that they had the right temperament and health to work on the CBNEP.

Once accepted into the class, canines started their foundation training (learning commands and scent association) at NDDTC’s state of the art training facility located in Newnan, Georgia. At the training center, the canines were introduced and taught to respond via bark to nutria scat (their target odor). Once all of the canines were able to search, locate, and respond to nutria scat, the handlers joined them in Georgia to begin their training.

At the training center, handlers spent three weeks learning about canine behavior, health, handling, and training. Handlers were paired with canines and, through various exercises, built rapport with their partners. The handlers and canines learned to work together as a team.

The second half of the training was conducted in Maryland in areas similar to what the teams would work in when monitoring for nutria. The canine teams refined their skills and practiced in the “real” work environment. They learned to use the environmental conditions (terrain, wind, etc.) to perform effective searches for nutria scat. At the end of the training program, the handler/canine teams had to pass a series of tests to find nutria scat before they could officially graduate.

The first two teams graduated in November 2014 and three additional teams joined the project in November 2015. The handler/canine teams joined other project specialists to search areas believed to be free of nutria and respond to possible nutria sightings. In addition to other valuable monitoring tools, the detector dogs add another level of confidence to the project’s final phase of verifying total eradication.

Dean and Rex Handler Dean Hopkins and Canine Rex. Dean has been a Wildlife Specialist for CBNEP since 2002 and a detector dog handler since 2014. His canine partner, Rex, was found at a private breeder in the Shenandoah Valley. Rex was initially trained as a bed bug detection dog but was returned to the breeder for unknown reasons. Dean and Rex graduated from NDDTC in November 2014. The canine team’s days are spent trying to locate nutria in the Chesapeake Bay. USDA photo.
Marnie and Keeva Handler Marnie Pepper with Canine Keeva. Marnie joined CBNEP in 2010 and became a canine handler and trainer. Keeva was procured from a breeder in western Virginia. She was originally bred to be a diabetes alert dog but did not have the temperament for that line of work. Luckily she was a perfect fit for the Nutria Dog Program and joined the team in November 2014. USDA photo
Lisa and Mya Handler Lisa Buhr and Canine Mya. Lisa has been a Wildlife Specialist on the CBNEP since March 2015. Canine Mya, a black lab mix, was found at the Montgomery County Animal Services and Adoption Center in Derwood, Maryland. They both recently graduated from the NDDTC and now are a part of the Nutria Dog Detector Program. Together they make an excellent team detecting nutria sign to help preserve Delmarva’s wetlands. USDA photo
Mario and Cain Handler Mario Eusi and Canine Cain. Mario has been a Wildlife Specialist on the CBNEP since 2002. He graduated from the NDDTC in November of 2015. Canine Cain is a chocolate lab mix that was adopted from Montgomery County Animal Services and Adoption Center in Derwood, Maryland. Cain has a calm demeanor, but has a very high toy drive, which makes him well suited to being a detector dog. USDA photo
Carl and Hektor Handler Carl Dunnock and Canine Hektor. Carl has been a Wildlife Specialist for the CBNEP since April 2008. He became a Canine Handler in November 2015. His canine partner Hektor, a black lab mix, was found at Fulton County Animal Services. They recently graduated from the NDDTC in November 2015. Together they make an outstanding team helping to find nutria sign on the Chesapeake Bay. USDA photo

The CBNEP’s Nutria Detector Dog Program follows protocols developed by the NDDTC to ensure the health, safety, and well-being of all program dogs. Dogs that are accepted into the program but are unable to complete the training are adopted out through the National Detector Dog Training Center’s Adoption Program — they are not returned to shelters. If a program dog reaches retirement age or cannot continue work during his career, then his handler has first rights to adopt. If the handler is for some reason unable to adopt the dog, it is then adopted out through NDDTC’s Adoption Program. Canines are not returned to shelters once they are in the training program. USDA photo

Last updated: March 4, 2016