CK-9: the Conservation Canines

Using Dogs to Assist with Endangered Mammal Research

Photo courtesy Conservation Canines

What is the best way to track the behaviors of marine life?

We’ll bet ‘canines’ isn’t the first answer that comes to mind. But that’s exactly what a program called CK-9 Orca Skat has implemented through The University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology. CK-9 is a euphemism for ‘Conservation Canines’; dogs that the program uses to understand activities of endangered and threatened species through sniffing out their skat (yep, fecal matter).


Once collected by researchers who have trained these ambitious apprentices, the skat specimen is analysed by biologists to learn more about what the mammal eats, the toxins that might be affecting their environment, the amount of hormonal stress they may be experiencing, and their genetic makeup which is often altered by environmental factors (known as a field called epigenetics).
Heath Smith; Photo Courtesy Conservation Canines

CK-9 was founded in the late 1990’s by Dr. Samual Wasser, Director of the Center for Conservation at the University of Washington. It was helped along by Sergeant Barbara Davenport from the Washington Department of Corrections who trained dogs in narcotics tracking. Wasser came up with the idea of instructing these canines to sniff out feces rather than narcotics while he was conducting hormone analysis of fecal matter to understand the pressures that environmental factors had on jeopardized wildlife. “No other method can acquire such a vast amount of reliable information in so short a time, making this approach incredibly valuable for conservation planners and land managers,” the program states.

In 2001, cetaceans entered the Conservation Canine program. Scientist Roz Rolland was working with Dr. Wasser on the study of the New England right whale’s hormone analysis when they recognized that CK-9s could assist in spotting the wide-spread whale excrements. Despite being easily spotted by the human eye, the scats weren’t being found in the numbers they could be found with the use of these practiced and effective research dogs. The CK-9s are able to sniff out hints of skat floating far from research boats in the ocean, due to their exceptional olfactory capabilities. Rolland was the first to use canine assistance to find specimens in the ocean, using them to scrutinize the right whale’s well-being and procreation activity.
Photo Courtesy Jennifer Hartman

So what makes a dog qualified for the CK-9 cohort? Often, these are pups that were too energetic for the average home, and in turn, were orphaned. The program works with humane societies that will find rescues who appear to have great sniffing and seeking abilities as well as an appetite for the great outdoors. Through the program, they’re able to expend the mass amounts of energy they have, which formerly proved too difficult for 9-5ers’ schedules. The study handlers are able to live, work, and play with the CK-9 dogs every day of the week at all hours, and give them the love they need.

It’s a win-win partnership.