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 watercrafts entering Alberta.

Legislation or legal mandate for program

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

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.

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 watercraft inspection station checkpoints in Alberta and Montana.

The objectives were:

  • train dogs to detect adult zebra and quagga mussels by scent on a watercraft
  • demonstrate the teams readiness to deploy
  • deploy trained dogs to watercraft checkpoints in Alberta and Montana 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 watercrafts. 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 K-9 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 were trained to watch the dogs for change in behaviour and how to methodically guide the dogs around the boat. The 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 harbouring 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 element in the Aquatic Invasive Species program.

Following successful certification, the three teams have been deployed province-wide and will focus their attention on dog supported watercraft inspections at the highest risk border stations in the province.