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AIS Conservation K-9 Program

Aquatic Invasive Species Conservation Canine Program;  sniffer dog and dog handler inspecting boat motor

About the Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) Conservation K-9 Program

Alberta’s Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) Conservation K-9 Program is part of the provincial aquatic invasive species watercraft inspection initiative.

This program employs sniffer dogs at watercraft inspection stations in Alberta to detect zebra and quagga mussel infestations on watercraft entering Alberta.

Legislation or Legal Mandate for this Program

The AIS Conservation K-9 Program supports watercraft inspections required under:

  • Fisheries (Alberta) Amendment Act (2015)
  • Ministerial Order as per Section 32 (14) of the Fisheries (Alberta) Act

Program News and Updates

How the AIS Conservation K-9 Program Works

Program Development

In 2014, the Government of Alberta partnered with the Flathead Basin Commission in Montana and the Alberta Irrigation Projects Association to pilot the use of mussel-detecting dogs at watercraft inspection stations in Alberta and Montana.

This was a Crown Managers Partnership initiative, which identified the absence of Aquatic Invasive Species as an ecological indicator of good health in the Crown of the Continent Ecosystem. Visit the Crown Manager’s Partnership website at:

This pilot study investigated incorporating detection dogs in ongoing efforts to identify watercraft carrying zebra mussels (Dreissena polymorpha) and quagga mussels (Dreissena rostriformis bugensis) at checkpoints in Alberta and Montana.

The objectives were:

  • Train dogs to detect adult zebra and quagga mussels by scent on watercraft
  • Demonstrate the teams readiness to deploy
  • Deploy trained dogs to watercraft checkpoints in Montana and Alberta to continue assessments in real deployment scenarios
  • Synthesize training and deployment outcomes in consideration of large-scale deployment

During this pilot, the non-profit organization Working Dogs for Conservation was contracted to train their working dogs to detect mussels on watercraft. The trained teams spent 13 days on either side of the border at inspection stations (24 dog search days as multiple teams were used).

Canine Training and Standards

The characteristics essential for a working dog include:

  • high ball drive
  • ability to focus
  • high energy

Less than 1 in 1000 dogs has what it takes to make a working dog. The Alberta program dogs were recruited across North American shelters and rescue agencies (as they do not tend to make good family pets).

The teams were trained by Working Dogs for Conservation and Lt. Lynette Shimek of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and all three successfully passed external certification to the standards used by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Initial training involved 140 hours of a specialized handler and canine bootcamp where the handlers were matched with their canines. The canines learned to detect the odour, pinpoint the exact location, and display an alert. The handlers we trained to watch the dogs for change of behaviour and how to methodically guide the dogs around the boat.

Prior to deployment, four ‘Working Dogs for Conservation’ canines were trained and passed detection standards developed by California Department of Fish and Wildlife for the detection of Dreissenid mussels.

A controlled trial was also conducted during this pilot to compare the performance of dogs and trained human inspectors. During this trial, the dogs found 100% of the watercraft fouled by mussels during each iteration, while humans missed up to 25% of watercraft harboring mussels.

Canine Deployment in Alberta

Due to the success of this pilot and the comparison trial, Alberta contracted Working Dogs for Conservation to help create its own Conservation K-9 program in 2015 to incorporate as a permanent aspect of the inspections program.

Three canines were recruited to join the Government of Alberta as full time employees. All three handlers of the dogs are employees of Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP).

Following successful certification, the 3 teams have been deployed provincially and will focus their attention at the highest risk border stations in the province.

What a Dog Supported Watercraft Inspection Looks Like

If your watercraft is undergoing a dog-supported inspection, here is how it works:

  1. The dog and its handler always begin their inspection at the bow (the front of the watercraft), and make their way along the craft until they reach the stern (the rear of the craft).

    The dog will be directed to begin the search at the hitch and trailer as it makes its way around the craft. The search will include everywhere within the waterline or where water will drain out, such as through hull fittings and bilge plugs.

    Dogs wear booties so they don’t scratch the craft.

  2. The dog is trained to search for the odour of mussels; once the odour is detected, the dog will display a change of behaviour the handler is trained to watch for. Once the dog decides he has found the scent, he will display a passive alert by sitting down.
  3. The handler will ask the dog to pinpoint exactly where the odour is located on the boat so it can be verified. The dog will pinpoint the exact spot with his nose.
  4. Once verified by the handler, the dog will receive the reward – a special toy to engage in play with the handler. The only time the dog can play with this toy is for this work purpose, so it remains very special. These dogs do not need a paycheque, they just work for the toy!

Detection Success Rates

In 2015, the canines inspected 667 boats after a late season start following recruitment and training.

Video: Meet the Conservation K9 Unit

Watch the Conservation K-9 Team Dogs as they sniff watercraft for invasive quagga and zebra mussels.

Video: Boat inspection stations at Alberta Lakes

In this episode of Let’s Go Outdoors, watch the K-9 Program in action at the Sylvan Lake Inspection Station.

Video: We Let the Dogs Out!

View the video below to learn more about the K-9 program:


Page Information

Updated: Dec 5, 2016