(Zambia) – Meet Ruger, a three-year-old labrador retriever/German shepherd mix, born on the Blackfeet Reservation in the US state of Montana. His owner shot his littermates, but Ruger escaped. He was taken to a nearby animal shelter where he was found by a dog trainer.
Ruger is now the first anti-poaching dog in Zambia. He lives right next to South Luangwa national park where animals are being poached, snared and trafficked out of the park. He’s responsible for finding elephant ivory, rhino horns, bush meat, other wildlife contraband, guns and ammunition.
Ruger is a bad dog, and that’s why he does his job so well. Just ask Megan Parker, the director of research at Working Dogs for Conservation in Montana. When Parker scours animal shelters for her next dog-in-training, she looks for unadoptable, hard-to-handle dogs.
“Bad dogs have an overwhelming desire to bring you things,” she said. “Dogs love telling you what they know. They have an inability to quit.”
It’s that inability to quit that draws Parker to “bad” dogs such as Ruger. “These dogs have an unrelenting drive,” she said. “For a dog that doesn’t stop, you can train that dog to bring you things.”
Parker, a conservation biologist and trainer of detection dogs, admits that “bad” dogs don’t make great pets. Their personalities, however, are perfect for conservation work.
At first Ruger bit and snapped at people. “He was a scary dog to approach,” said Parker. She had trouble getting him to a veterinarian. He had issues with confined spaces. Still, she wouldn’t relent.
“Early on in his training, Meg [Parker] was under pressure from her colleagues to decide if Ruger would make the cut,” said Pete Coppolillo, executive director at Working Dogs for Conservation (WD4C). “If a dog doesn’t work out, we make sure they have a forever home. We all wondered if Meg should start finding a place for Ruger, who was losing his sight.”
It was Ruger’s drive that convince Parker to keep training him. She eventually paired Ruger with the scouts of “Delta Team”, a Zambian law enforcement unit jointly operated by the South Luangwa Conservation Society and the Zambia Wildlife Authority. The scouts, who had little interaction with dogs, were skeptical.
On his first day, Ruger accompanied them on a job where roadblocks were set up to search cars and trucks which might be carrying illegal goods. “It takes humans an hour or more to search a car,” said Coppolillo, “whereas it takes dogs three to four minutes.”
As the vehicles were passing, Ruger sat and stared at one of the cars. “That’s his alert [a dog training term for signal],” said Coppolillo.
The car contained several pieces of luggage. The scouts searched them and found nothing. Ruger, however, kept on staring at one piece of luggage. Inside was a matchbox wrapped in a plastic bag that contained a primer cap, which ignites gunpowder in illegal muzzle loaders used for poaching.
“At that moment, everyone believed that Ruger knew what he was doing,” Coppolillo said. “They learned to think of Ruger as a colleague.”
Ruger’s been working since September 2014. “He’s a hero,” Coppolillo said, “who’s responsible for dozens of arrests and has convinced many skeptics of his detection skills.”
WD4C recently held a demonstration at a courthouse, where a number of people believed that Ruger’s skills were akin to witchcraft. A scout hid a piece of ivory and it took Ruger less than three minutes to find it.
The fact that he’s going blind isn’t slowing him down either. “His skills have sharpened,” Coppolillo said. “He’s working with a few younger dogs, who are somewhat goofy and get distracted like most puppies do. Ruger remains focused despite many distractions, such as having wild animals close by. Baboons are the worst. His lack of eyesight [he can see shadows] works in his favor because he almost entirely focuses on his sense of smell.”
“A dog’s sense of smell is far more developed than we humans can even imagine,” said Coppolillo. “Scientists talk about olfactory receptors, and concentrations, and parts per billion, but to put all that in perspective, think about it this way: a dog can detect a teaspoon of sugar dissolved in a million gallons of water – that’s two Olympic swimming pools.”
Ruger’s payment is playing tug-of-war with his favorite chew toy. His handlers don’t reward him with food. He does get days off during the week, which is well deserved since the work is dangerous. “Poachers are well armed and well trained,” Coppolillo said. “African elephants don’t live throughout the continent. Poachers kill elephants where they reside and smuggle them to places where they don’t live to throw law enforcement off their tracks.”
Coppolillo and Parker thought about sourcing other dogs in Africa. “Good dog selection is absolutely essential,” Coppolillo said. “Village dogs simply don’t have the drive to do this kind of work. There are only a handful of suitable and reputable kennels in Africa. Most are focused on selling security and military dogs, so they’re not as well socialized as a conservation dog needs to be. Plus, they generally sell those dogs for much more than what it would cost us to source a dog in the US.”
Meanwhile, Parker continues to scour US shelters for dogs like Ruger. To date, the former “bad” dog has put 150 poachers out of business.