At first glance, the boat stopped at a highway checkpoint near Golden, BC, unremarkable. The smooth, brightly painted hull was cleaned, with nothing to warn conservation officers checking the craft for clumps of invasive mussels that something was wrong.
Kilo, the team’s invasive species detection dog, wasn’t so sure. After a quick snort and a look back at his handler, the black-haired German Shepherd sat up and stared at the boat. It was a sure sign that a mold was hiding somewhere in the machine, said Sgt. Josh Lockwood, a recently retired BC conservation officer and Kilo’s first manager.
Zebra and quagga mussels are small freshwater mussels native to the Black and Caspian Seas. First appearing in North American lakes and rivers in the 1980s, they were likely imported by ships discharging their ballast water into the Great Lakes. The snails quickly took hold, growing on everything from irrigation pipes to hydroelectric dams, and spread around waterways from the east coast and from Ontario to California via contaminated boats.
Only the waterways of British Columbia and a handful of other western provinces, territories and US states remain unscathed. Keeping them out is a full-time job for Kilo, his fellow Major, his canine mussel-spotting partner, and about 45 conservation officers scattered across British Columbia.
Dogs are “incredible” at their job, detecting molds faster and more accurately than humans, Lockwood said. With thousands of boats passing through the province’s mussel detection checkpoints each year, the pups are vital to the province’s efforts to keep molluscs out.
Learning this skill is not easy. Training begins when the dogs are still puppies, Lockwood explained. Young dogs live with their future masters, who introduce them to basic commands. Once out of puppyhood, the dog and handler both head to the RCMP’s main canine training center in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland for a training course in three months on the art of detecting specific odors, such as guns, drugs or invasive mussels.
Lessons begin by introducing the dog to several scents – including the one he is trained to detect – and rewarding him when he sniffs and reacts to the desired scent. Once they begin to link the reaction to the scent with something fun like a treat or a game of fetch, the trainers begin presenting the dog with several scent-filled metal cylinders and ask them to figure out which one. is full of the desired smell.
“When he finds it and you pay him with his reward, he goes crazy and has a lot of fun,” Lockwood said. “It becomes fun for the dog.”
For handlers, the trick is to learn how each dog responds and pick up on their cues, he explained. With Kilo, it gives his master a quick glance when he first detects an invading mussel before taking another sniffle.
“He kind of goes, ‘Oh, there’s something here… I get it, boss, are you looking at me? “” Before sitting in front of the contaminated boat to show that something is wrong, Lockwood said.
Zebra and quagga mussels can transform aquatic food chains and form thick mats that can clog farm irrigation lines, hydroelectric dams and municipal water systems. Keeping them out of BC is a full-time job for two dedicated dogs.
Building this closeness between dog and human takes time and commitment on the part of the handler, making it a working relationship that spills over into everyday life. Kilo lived with Lockwood full-time for the four years he was a dog handler. The job is a “big commitment”: while Kilo is technically “the queen’s dog”, in practice he was like a pet. It was up to Lockwood to take Kilo for daily walks and evening pee outings.
Lockwood was already well into a career as a provincial conservation officer when he first got involved with the program in 2015. At the time he ‘just had no idea’ mussels existed until he was called by the provincial environment department’s environmental department to inspect a boat imported from Texas. The vessel was contaminated and the province asked him to set up a formal mussel monitoring program.
Mussels can transform aquatic food chains, threatening native fish species like salmon, and form thick mats that can clog farm irrigation lines, hydroelectric dams and municipal water systems. According to a 2013 provincial estimate, cleaning up these mats would cost British Columbia about $43 million, not including the impact on fishing, tourism and other industries that rely on the province’s freshwaterways. .
The program grew rapidly, hiring dozens of inspectors to monitor checkpoints on highways from the Okanagan to Peace Country. Soon the team joined other zebra mussel inspectors across North America, tapping into a kind of spy network for the boats carrying the molluscs. Inspectors in one jurisdiction typically notify their counterparts in another region when they notice a potentially contaminated boat heading their way, Lockwood said.
British Columbia, Alberta and Washington State are the only jurisdictions with invasive mussel detection dogs.
When Lockwood retired, he also passed responsibility for Kilo’s care to a new person. Letting the dog go — a months-long process in which he helped Kilo and his new master form a bond — came with a mix of emotions, Lockwood said. He was happy the dog had found a new home and relished the freedom that came with not having a dog to care for. He grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan and has lived most of his life with animals, which means “it’s okay not to have commitments.”
As for Kilo, he’s busy doing his favorite thing: smelling mussels.