What's That Smell?

By Stephanny Arroyo Arce
Field Biologist, Panthera Costa Rica

Tigre with ball

To study elusive species like wild cats, we’re ready and willing to use all available sources of information in our quest to understand these animals – even feces. Cats’ droppings, or scats, are a wealth of information; helping us learn what the animals eat, their overall health, and details about their genetic background. They’re so useful that they’ve even helped produce the most complete genetic survey of jaguars in Mesoamerica that we have today.

Tigre looking for scat
Finding scat can be like looking for a needle in a haystack.

However, scat can be as difficult to find as the animal itself for your average scientist working in the field. This is where our four-legged friend Tigre, the scat detection dog, comes to our aid with his advanced sense of smell. That’s right, some superheroes wear a cape or a mask, but when Tigre dons his Panthera vest, he’s on duty with his nose to the ground sniffing out signs of wild cats!

Named after the jaguar, also known as “tigre” or “tiger” in Costa Rica, Tigre began his career in wildlife conservation in 2018. Our partner organization Working Dogs for Conservation (WD4C) saw he possessed all the right traits to become the perfect scat detection dog, i.e., he was obsessive-compulsive, and had a boundless reserve of energy. These personality quirks make him ideal to support Panthera’s Jaguar Corridor Initiative, but maybe not the best for your average family pet!

Tigre and Stephanny in Montana
Stephanny and Tigre's first day training in Montana.

Last February, Tigre and I started our training at WD4C’s facilities in Montana, USA. Over the course of three weeks training there, we were on our way to becoming Panthera’s dynamic duo of scat detection.

Tigre’s first step to becoming a scat detection dog was mastering basic commands such as: “sit,” “come,” and “leave it!” Moving forward, he began learning to identify the smell of wild cats’ scats using the latest cutting-edge technology: hollowed-out cement blocks lined up in a row and filled with poop.

Stephanny and Tigre
Example of a successful day: Tigre found eight samples!

Once Tigre started to successfully mark or “alert” which blocks contained the sample, the level of difficulty increased. He graduated to sniffing out samples hidden all around the neighborhood, and we introduced new species of wild cat scats – because not all their droppings smell the same!

Impressively, Tigre learned the scent of six different wild cat species’ scats, including the jaguar and puma, as well as the jaguarundi, ocelot, margay, and oncilla small cat species. After completing “school” and becoming comfortable working together as a team, both Tigre and I flew to our current base camp in Costa Rica.

Short of finding an ocelot lying around on the forest floor, poop is the next best thing!

Five months of hard training and teamwork later, we were ready to embark on our first field trip. Our job was to support the conservation efforts of Panthera’s Puma Program in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, and Tigre worked incredibly hard. It was a proud moment for both of us when he found his first sample in the field. By the end of the trip, Tigre proved all our hard work in the lead-up had been worth it – not only did he find his first sample, he found 53 others! Most, if not all, samples couldn’t have been found without him; a human’s ability to detect the small, often hidden scats simply doesn’t compare to the superior canine nose.

Tigre and Stephanny
From Costa Rica to Chile, no scat is safe from Tigre's nose!

To Tigre though, finding scat is not a job, it’s his favorite game of hide-and-seek. Together we try to find those elusive scats, and when he finds them he gets to play with his favorite toy – a very over-chewed and slobbery ball!

Back in Costa Rica, Tigre continues his work and has had many adventures; including boat rides, walks that lasted up to 14 hours (remember that the next time you give your dog a short five minutes around the block!), and even encounters with deadly snakes—don’t worry, he responds to specific commands for his safety, plus he’s trained not to chase or bark at wild animals.

Life isn’t just working and adventures for Tigre though. Most days he lives a quiet life with me, secretly pretending to be just your average pet; chewing on furniture and coconuts, smelling lamp posts, and going for walks in the park. However, whenever he is needed—anywhere in the world—he is always ready to put on his special vest and become Tigre, the Scat Detection Dog!

Tigre and Stephanny´s training was partially funded by the International Finance Corporation. You can read more about how the duo is helping them with renewable energy projects in jaguar territory here.

Learn more about Journey of the Jaguar, our scientists' conservation adventure to secure the ancient path of the jaguar, here. Find info on the species and our Jaguar Corridor Initiative here.