Waste-Sniffing Dogs Help Keep Bacteria Out Of Beaches, Streams

Aug 30, 2016

Kenna checks a creek near F.C. Reed Middle School in Bridgman
Credit Rebecca Thiele/WMUK

So far this year 25 public beaches on Lake Michigan have had closures due to high bacteria levels. As sewers and septic tanks age, they can leak human waste into streams and lakes - which can make people sick. Some cities and towns are trying to fix this old infrastructure.

But there’s a problem - how do you find out which pipes are leaking? A company founded in Michigan, Environmental Canine Services, uses dogs to sniff out wastewater.

Karen Reynolds of Environmental Canine Services leads Sable out of a creek near F.C. Reed Middle School in Bridgman
Credit Rebecca Thiele/WMUK

In Bridgman, investigators Sable and Kenna sniff samples from storm water drains near Weko Beach. Sable is a ten year old German Shepard. Kenna - a Golden retriever - is two.

“And if they smell any contamination that indicates human source bacteria, then they will give an alert. Sable barks when he smells that and Kenna will sit,” says  Karen Reynolds.

Reynolds founded Environmental Canine in Michigan seven years ago with her husband - an environmental scientist. Now the company is headquartered in Maine with teams on both coasts as well as in the Midwest.

All together they have six working dogs. Reynolds says to her knowledge Environmental Canine is the only company in the world that does this.

This summer, the company tracked wastewater in Berrien County. Peg Kohring is the Midwest director of The Conservation Fund - an environmental non-profit that works on community projects. She says there have been consistent problems at five beaches in the county - including Weko Beach.

“We’re finding that the beaches are closed and it’s because of human waste in the water. So we’re tracing back the drains trying to find where either there’s a failing septic system or maybe there’s a storm water drain and a sewer crossing,” says Kohring. 

Karen Reynolds of Environmental Canine Services (left) discusses the best way to get down to a storm drain with dog handler Laura Symonds (right). Peg Kohring of The Conservation Fund takes a call (middle).
Credit Rebecca Thiele/WMUK

Kohring says the dogs find things that people can’t.

“I’ve walked those creeks many times looking, didn’t see anything and then this dog Sable just came and nailed it - found that pipe under all these leaves. So it’s faster, it’s much cheaper than water sampling. We can go right to the source of the problem,” she says.

Karen Reynolds says regular water testing is still important, but the dogs can point scientists in the right direction - especially when there are two storm drains like the dogs found in Bridgman.

“So traditional methods we would have had to grab a sample from both, send it to the lab, it would take about 24 hours to get E.coli results back. Then you’d have to come back out and start tracing it upstream that way. Now we just did it all in matter of minutes,” says Reynolds. 

Kohring says this will be her third time working with the dogs. A few years ago they helped find 30 failing septic systems along the Galien River in New Buffalo - which empties into Lake Michigan.

“And were able with the rural development, the U.S. Department of Agriculture to get funding to get them fixed. Because people generally with failing septic systems are in poverty and you don’t want to nick them without having a solution,” says Kohring. 

Kenna sniffs water near a storm drain in Bridgman just off the railroad tracks.
Credit Rebecca Thiele/WMUK

On this summer's trip to Bridgman, Kohring says the dogs found whole sewer lines that had been dissolved by sewer gas. The team also discovered that some sewer lift stations - which pump wastewater - were leaking sewage into nearby creeks.

The dogs can quickly find a problem, but actually fixing things like sewer systems can take time. Cities don’t always have the money for that.

“Hopefully there’s some grant money available to help - that would be ideal. But yeah, but I think every community is struggling with old infrastructure and you know you can only replace it so fast," says Marcy Hamilton, a senior planner with the Southwest Michigan Planning Commission.

Karen Reynolds says they’re looking into having the dogs sniff out PCBs too - the main toxin leftover from Kalamazoo’s paper mills. But they have to get enough interest and it has to be safe for the dogs and their handlers.

Reynolds says the dogs love their job:

"The goal is to make it a game for them where it is the most fun thing that they do. They always get a reward of a treat or a squeaky ball or whatever it is. So they love it.”

You can find out where Environmental Canine Services has worked here.