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Knapweed Nightmare

The keen noses of dogs have been used to sniff out everything from drugs to bombs…why not use them to find weeds?

That’s the thinking of Kim Goodwin at Montana State University in Bozeman. She is researching the effectiveness of training dogs to detect spotted knapweed. The first canine trainee was Knapweed Nightmare, a Rocky Mountain Shepherd. Two German shepherds, Rio and Tsavo, have since joined the hunt for this nasty weed. These dogs may be used as part of early detection and rapid response in Integrated Weed Management.

Picture of the dog Rio

This is how it works:
The dogs are fitted with a Global Positioning System (GPS) collar and released to search parcels of rangeland for the knapweed odor. When a dog finds a plant, it has been trained to dig or claw at it for about 10 seconds and then continue searching for other plants. The GPS collar records the dog’s location every three seconds. If a dog pauses to dig, the GPS coordinates of that spot are noted and checked for a knapweed plant. When plants are located, they can then be treated with herbicide or removed.

Picture of the dog Tsavo

Training a 'detector dog':
The dog’s training begins with scent imprinting. The trainee dogs first get to play with a piece of spotted knapweed wrapped inside a towel. Trainers praise and play with the dogs and the ‘toy’. Because of this, the dogs associate the scent of the weed with pleasure and praise. Next, trainers hide the knapweed toy and the dogs must find it by scent. As they get better at finding it, the hiding places get tougher. Trainers then try to distract the dogs with other smells like plants, soils and meat. Through this process, the dogs get more devoted to their ‘job’ of finding the knapweed scent.






Quote by Kim GoodwinBar chart showing the effectiveness of detector dogs vs. humansKnapweed rosette next to a pen for scale

In field trials conducted during September 2005, Goodwin compared how well the dogs matched up against humans in finding spotted knapweed plants. Overall, the canines were 22% more accurate at detecting the weeds. The difference was in detecting small and partially hidden plants or rosettes that were difficult for humans to see. The dog’s advantage is finding the plants by odor, not sight.



For more on this intriguing research project, visit: http://landresources.montana.edu/GradInfo/detector_dogs2.htm

Images:
-Kim Goodwin, Montana State University.

Text references:
-Goodwin, K. and J. Jacobs. 2005. Montana Weed Prevention Areas: Partnerships for Rangeland Protection. California Invasive Plant Council Symposium. Prevention Reinvention: Protocols, Information, and Partnerships to Stop the Spread of Invasive Plants. Chico University, Chico, CA, October 6-8.