Oil Sniffer Dogs – How Dogs Can Help Find Oil Spills

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Crude oil spilled from an exploded platform, destroyed tanker, or broken pipe can contaminate the environment so deeply that it takes many years to clean up, largely because of the laborious process of search for any escaped oil.

Fortunately, domesticated dogs help reduce the time needed, thanks to their unmatched ability to sniff out small amounts of crude oil. That’s according to a multidisciplinary group of experts who spoke about training and deploying dogs to detect oil leaks and spills during a virtual roundtable hosted on Dec. 13 by the American Geophysical Union.

Oil spills, such as the recent submarine pipeline that erupted off the coast of Huntington Beach in California in October, are harmful to humans and the environment, so it is imperative that cleanup efforts are both effective and thorough to minimize damage.

Trained oil detection dogs are both faster and better than the most skilled human surveyors and the most advanced instruments designed to detect oil spills, such as a photo-ionization detection tool, making these dogs are a huge asset to any oil spill cleanup effort.

Inspired by the work of a Norwegian team who first experimented with the use of oil sniffer dogs a decade earlier, Ed Owen, environmental consultant and owner of Coastal Advisors Owen, team up with Chiron K9 detection dog trainer Paul Bunker to perform a series of tests with the Bunker dogs.

The dogs’ success in initial testing led the team to an oiled site in Nova Scotia, where trained detection dogs were able to find all the oil from a year-old shipwreck. The pointed-nosed canines found even small amounts of weathered oil that was barely visible to trained observers and in some cases was completely ignored by expert observers.

Dogs are much better than humans at finding traces of oil because their noses work like a very advanced vapor detector, says Lauryn DeGreeff, chemist and associate professor at Florida International University, during the briefing. When the dog sniffs the air, the vapors released by the oil enter the dog’s nostrils and hit a layer of mucus inside the nose where the chemicals are concentrated. This concentration of chemicals is then sent to the dog’s 300 million scent receptors (humans have about 400) which then send signals to the dog’s brain, where the scent information is processed.

“Dogs’ noses are much more sensitive than any available technology” Lucie Lazarowski, a cognitive and behavioral scientist at Auburn University who studies odor detection in dogs but is not involved in this particular research, says Popular mechanics. Currently, experts visually scan the environment for oil, dig trenches or pits to find buried oil, or use instruments such as a photo-ionization detector, which detects oil vapors in the area. looks, but not as good as a dog. In a recent study to be published soon, Lazarowski and his colleagues found that trained dogs can identify and distinguish 40 different smells. (Dogs can probably identify more than that – the study just ended at 40, she explained.)

The training of oil detector dogs takes about 45 days of one to two hours of training per day, Bunker explained at the press conference. Any motivated and capable dog can do the job, but hunting breeds, such as Labradors, Golden Retrievers and Spaniels are generally more prone to scouting work, he said. And because they’re smaller and more agile than some of the other working dog breeds, they’re easy travel companions and quick workers.

Bunker has trained his dogs to detect oil on the surface and below the surface on land, which is useful when it comes to finding oil stains over large swathes of land, for example after a oil spill. tanker or after a pipeline leak and oil is lurking below the surface. Now he is working on training and testing dogs for water detection, which could be helpful in finding oil polluted water before the oil sinks well below the surface and contaminates the entire area. water column.

“One of the main limitations of training a dog to actually detect underwater oil is the fact that we can’t put oil in a water source,” Bunker explains. To work around this problem, the team developed an underwater device that pumps oil vapor to the surface in bubbles, so the scent emanates from where the researchers place the device in it. water. Using this device, Bunker was able to train his dogs to search from the front of a boat and direct the boat to the source of the petroleum smell.

Bunker and his four-legged colleagues have been involved in several oil spill investigations across North America in recent years, from Alaska to Florida, and remain on standby for future responses. Owen says he hopes detection dogs will be more included in oil spill response in the future.

“I mean, you’ve got a four-legged lab that can run at a good speed. It’s pretty amazing, ”he says.

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