DEM’s newest – and cutest – turtle tracker is a dog

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Newton, aptly nicknamed Newt, is a chestnut color Labrador Retriever trained to spot multiple species of turtles. He comes to work every day full of energy and is happy to be paid in tennis balls.

Newt and his supervisor Julia Sirois of St. Lawrence University have been embarking on a six-week summer project to study Rhode Island’s most endangered turtle species for the past few weeks.

The research project is a collaboration between 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 herpetologist Scott Buchanan said there are several species of turtles the state wants to learn more about.

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

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

Buchanan said Newt and Sirois would complement ongoing conventional visual investigations.

“Having another one-dog team out there is just an opportunity to learn more,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to identify potentially new populations and learn more about existing populations.”

Newt and Sirois conduct repeat surveys at three locations.

“With every new turtle we find, we learn a little bit more,” Buchanan said.

With a rare species, each Newt find is a small victory.

Newt, who wears goggles to protect his eyes from the undergrowth, was trained to spot turtles. (Juliet Sirois)

“We know so little about the species in the landscape across Rhode Island that the simple act of Newt finding a new turtle in a new location could have that location on our radar for the first time,” Buchanan said. “It all starts with inventory and monitoring.”

(The types and locations of the research are not disclosed in this story due to concerns about poaching, mostly for the pet trade.)

As well as being recorded in a database, each turtle will be tagged and equipped with a passive built-in responder, or PIT tag, which contains a microchip that allows researchers to track its movements.

The data will be analyzed after the field work is completed.

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.

“Being a reptile and amphibian biologist, I wanted something that would be happy in water, rip ticks off easily, and dry very quickly,” she said.

Hoffmann acquired Newt from Radar Kennel in Ohio, which specializes in breeding field dogs. As a highly specialized dog that has to work, it would be unsuitable for life as a family dog.

“They breed and train hunting dogs,” Hoffmann said. “Newt is specially trained for upland game so he’s more scent and upland oriented than a normal Lab who would watch where the gun is pointed and try to watch the birds fall.”

Newt and Hoffmann trained at K9 College, a police and drug detection dog training center in Watertown, NY

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

“He’s like my little 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 fetches, and that puts him at ease enough that I can live with him, but he’s not as happy with the work as he is,” Hoffmann said.

Hoffmann also takes Newt to her office at the university.

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

Newt spent part of last summer on Cape Cod in search of spadefoot toads, but turned out to be much more adept at spotting turtles.

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

When Newt spots a turtle, he signals or warns it by lying down.

“Some of his finds were exciting to me,” she said. “There was a pile of bushes that was probably five feet high and two feet wide and he walked around it and walked around it and then he lay down and was alert and looked up and stared at me just smiling and panting . And I came over and looked and there was a turtle in the middle of this pile of bushes and I just couldn’t have found this without him.”

Arriving at her home in Portland, Maine, on her day off, Sirois described her relationship with Newt, who could be heard panting and occasionally barking softly in the background.

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

On days when the team is working, they are on duty for up to six hours.

Newt, a Labrador retriever who has been trained to track turtles, works for one and only one reward, his ball summer takes place over several weeks, paired. (Kris Hoffman)

“He works all the time,” Sirois said. “He takes a break every 20 minutes or at the end of a one kilometer transect he takes a good break where he plays fetch, relaxes, swims and then on our days off I’m out with him all day, like that quite.”

Sirois began scent training with Newt more than a year ago.

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

Newt isn’t the first turtle tracker, 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… to use them for fecal detection and population monitoring, but now I think it’s very beneficial for us to use dogs to help us find elusive species,” he said. “These dogs can help us find the small age groups that are almost impossible to find — juveniles, subadults. These are very mysterious animals for humans to find, but a dog’s nose can pick them up right away, so I think it’s valuable for us to make sure that any research we do on a particular turtle species, we do the whole thing Image obtained through the use of dogs.”

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

“He’ll do his job to get his ball 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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