The newest weapon in the state's fight against invasive species has four legs, a powerful nose and answers to the name of Louie.
The state Department of Fish and Game has begun using six canine teams to search for invasive species like zebra mussels as well as often-poached animals like abalone and other illegal items.
One of the teams is based in Stockton and consists of Fish and Game Warden Lori Oldfather and her bright-eyed, energetic yellow Labrador retriever, Louie.
Zebra mussels and quagga are small freshwater mussels that can cause big problems for water systems and native habitats. The animals can spread from different lakes and waterways by sticking to boats. In the last year, Fish and Game inspected nearly 83,000 boats, trying to halt the spread of the two species.
Louie and Oldfather were recently practicing their inspections at the Mokelumne River fish hatchery using a training boat. Oldfather would hide items in the boat and it was up to Louie to find them.
"Where is it, Louie?" Oldfather commanded.
Tail up and nose wriggling, Louie sprang into action sniffing along both sides of the boat. Seconds later he found the abalone Oldfather had hidden under the bow.
"Good job, Louie," Oldfather said as she bent down to scratch Louie's ears, her eyes shining with pride, before throwing him his blue and orange ball.
The pair graduated in February from the K-9 academy located in Willits and have been working everyday on bonding and expanding their searching skills.
At the academy, the dogs are first trained with scented tennis balls shot into the air from hydraulic boxes. The dogs had to find the balls and bring them back to the box with a scent matching the ball's scent. After mastering the boxes, the dogs were trained to find real quagga hidden on boats, much like Oldfather and Louie continue to do each day.
Their reward? A ball just for them.
"He's great because he has no bias … his only bias is to his ball," Oldfather said.
Oldfather is also training Louie on her own to sniff out deer and bear blood for the upcoming hunting season when wardens often face hunters and poachers trying to hide meat and carcasses in various parts of their boats or vehicles.
She hides the packets of meat and blood throughout a boat and has Louie jump in and find them. With a little prompting, he is sitting, alert and focused. Eager to see if he has found the right thing, he stares at the exact spot where Oldfather hid the meat: sealed in a bag and closed in an airtight cooler on top of a seat on the boat. Another ball for Louie.
"Good boy, Louie," Oldfather praises once more.
While the initial training is complete, Oldfather and Louie continue to work with the canine academy.
"We meet with the master handler every month (but) we continue our communication between the two of us everyday," Oldfather said.
Oldfather has been with Fish and Game for about 18 years but hasn't ever had a trained dog working with her. However, she said her new partner will be quite beneficial.
"I know what a big help a dog can be to a game warden … it can be a concern to the bad guy," Oldfather said.
"They're a huge benefit to our job because they can find anything," added Oldfather's partner, Game Warden Alan Gregory.
Gregory doesn't have a trained dog, but brings his "companion" dog with him to work each day to help out with everyday tasks and to keep him company.
The canine program began through grant money, but the Department of Fish and Game plans to fund the program with donations.
All donations are tax deductible and can be sent directly to CalTIP Inc., K-9, 17 Mace Blvd., Suite J PMB 125, Davis, CA 95618.
Quagga and zebra mussels first arrived in the United States from
Europe in the 1980s, according to a fact sheet by the Department of
Fish and Game.
The animals have been spreading west ever since and cause problems because of their prolific growth. Quagga and zebra mussels can clog pipes that carry drinking and irrigation water, interfere with hydroelectric systems and also damage the environment in general.
Both zebra and quagga mussels were found in Lake Havasu and the San Justo reservoir this January. However, there haven't been any reported in San Joaquin or Sacramento counties, according to Fish and Game.
- News-Sentinel staff.
Many of the dogs that went through the academy were companion dogs but after graduation were purchased by Fish and Game to be used in the field, said Erin Gallop, public information officer for Fish and Game.
The dogs cut down on costs and help with warden efficiency.
"The dogs could save us 800 personnel hours a year," said Alexia Retallack, spokeswoman for Fish and Game.
The academy was first funded by seed grants and now the department is accepting donations and sponsorships of dog and warden teams, said Retallack.
The wardens who trained their companion dogs were paired up with them; however, Oldfather and Louie are a special match-up.
"I'm the lucky one that got a new dog," Oldfather said, adding that even though her companion dog didn't pass training, she still has a great love for Louie.
"(There is) almost too much of a connection. I let him sleep on the couch," Oldfather said.