DEM’s latest – and cutest – Turtle Tracker is a dog

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Newton, aptly nicknamed Newt, is a red Labrador retriever trained to detect several species of turtles. He comes to work every day eager to get there and is delighted to be paid in tennis balls.

Newt and his manager, St. Lawrence University senior Julia Sirois, are weeks away from a six-week summer project to study Rhode Island’s most endangered turtle species.

The research project is a collaboration involving the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), the University of Rhode Island, St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY, and the Roger Williams Park Zoo.

DEM State Herpetologist Scott Buchanan said there were several turtle species the state wanted to learn more about.

“We’re two weeks away, and I would say we can already be certain that Newt is competent at finding turtles,” he said. “Whether Newt will ultimately be more competent than just a team of people doing visual encounter surveys is one of the questions we want to try to answer, and we’re framing the work around that question.”

The main objective of the study is to find out how many turtles of less common species live in Rhode Island and where they are found.

Buchanan said Newt and Sirois would supplement ongoing conventional visual surveys.

“Having another team with a dog is just an opportunity to learn more,” he said. “This is an opportunity to potentially identify new populations and learn more about existing populations.”

Newt and Sirois carry out repeated surveys at three sites.

“We learn a little more with each new turtle we find,” Buchanan said.

In the case of a rare species, each of Newt’s discoveries is a small victory.

Newt, who wears goggles to shield his eyes from the underbrush, was trained to detect turtles. (Julia Sirois)

“We know so little about the species found in the landscape across Rhode Island that the mere fact that Newt finds a new turtle in a new place could put that place on our radar for the first time,” Buchanan said. “It all starts with inventory and tracking.”

(The species and locations of the research are not disclosed in this story out of concern for poaching, primarily for the pet trade.)

In addition to being registered in a database, each turtle is tagged and fitted with a built-in passive responder, or PIT tag, which contains a microchip that allows researchers to track its movements.

The data will be analyzed after the conclusion of the fieldwork.

Newt’s owner, Kristine Hoffmann, is Sirois Professor of Conservation Biology at St. Lawrence University. Hoffmann said she considered several dog breeds before settling on a Labrador retriever.

“Because I’m a reptile and amphibian biologist, I wanted something that was going to be happy in the water, easy to remove ticks, and dries really quickly,” she said.

Hoffmann acquired Newt from Radar Kennel in Ohio, which specialized in breeding terrain dogs. As a highly specialized dog that needs to work, he would be ill-suited to pet life.

“They breed and train hunting dogs,” Hoffmann said. “Newt is specifically trained for upland game, so he is more scent-oriented and more upland-oriented than a normal Labrador who would look to see where the gun is pointing and try to watch the birds while ‘they fall.”

Newt and Hoffmann trained at K9 College, a narcotics and service dog training center in Watertown, NY

Newt lives with Hoffmann in her home, but she describes him more as a companion than a pet.

“He’s like my baby boy, but he’s not like a pet,” she said. “He’s very hyperactive when he’s not working. He has a lot of energy and a lot of emotions, and I tell people he has very high emotions and very low thresholds.

When Newt isn’t working, he’s exercising.

“We do a lot of three-hour walks or one-hour recovery, and that calms him down enough that I can live with him, but he’s not happy with the way he is when he’s working,” Hoffmann said.

Hoffmann also brings Newt to his office at the university.

“I have a door at the end of my office. When the students pass in the hallway, he puts his head in the hallway and all the students pet him. He gets a lot of attention from the students. Many of them will also take her for a walk during the day,” she said.

Newt spent part of last summer on Cape Cod, hunting toad toads, but found he was much better at sniffing out turtles.

“I wanted to find a project where he would actually make a real difference,” Hoffmann said. “He’s much better with turtles.”

When Newt detects a turtle, he signals or alerts by lying down.

“Some of his discoveries were exciting to me,” she said. “There was a brush pile that was probably a meter and a half high and two meters wide and he was walking around and walking around and then he lay down and alerted and looked up and looked at me, just smiling and panting. And I came and looked, and there was a turtle in the middle of this brush pile and there was just no way I could have found this without it.

Reached at her home in Portland, Maine on her day off, Sirois described her relationship with Newt, who could be heard in the background, panting and barking low from time to time.

“He’s been a really good roommate, I have to say,” she said. “He’s really, really good at unwinding when it’s time, because of the amount of work he does, so that makes it a lot easier for me,” she said.

On days when the team is working, they stay in the field until six o’clock.

Newt, a Labrador retriever who was trained to sniff out turtles, works for one and only reward, his ball. Newt was paired with St. Lawrence University senior Julia Sirois as part of a Rhode Island turtle survey that is taking place over several weeks this summer. (Kris Hoffmann)

“He’s been working all the time,” Sirois said. “He takes breaks every 20 minutes or, at the end of a transect, which is a kilometer long, he takes a good break where he plays fetch, he relaxes, swims, and then on our days off , I’m out all day with him, pretty much.

Sirois began his training in perfumery with Newt over a year ago.

“I started taking different classes with him, learning more about the importance of the dog handler putting him in the right direction of the wind, understanding how smells move, winds move, in order to prepare for the better the dog to success,” she said. “And then I learned a lot about body language, its cues, and I started building on that. So last fall I had the opportunity to choose a species and start raise it myself, with [Hoffmann’s] advice, of course.

Newt is not the first turtle detector dog, but he is the first to work in Rhode Island. Lou Perrotti, director of conservation programs at Roger Williams Park Zoo, said he liked the idea of ​​using a dog to find turtles.

“I’ve seen the use of dogs…using them for scat detection, population monitoring, but now using dogs to help us find elusive species I think is very beneficial to us,” did he declare. “These dogs can help us find the small age classes that are almost impossible to find – neonates, sub-adults. They are very secretive animals for humans to find, but a dog’s nose can capture them, so I think it’s valuable for us to make sure that any research we do with a particular turtle species, we can get the full picture using dogs.”

Newt’s motivation isn’t conservation, or gambling, or even treats. It’s his ball.

“He’ll do his thing so he can get his ball back, because he doesn’t care about the turtle,” Hoffman said. “If you put food in front of him and hold the ball, he won’t eat the food. He wants the ball.


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