Professional Good Boy Won't Stop Until He's Sniffed Out Every Turtle In Need Of Help
Changing the world one turtle at a time 🐢
Every turtle living in the wild matters, and 3-year-old pup Newt is leaving no shell unturned when it comes to helping them. As a valuable member of a large conservation team in Rhode Island, Newt uses his advanced sense of smell to find all sorts of turtles — both aquatic and land — so that his human teammates can keep track of the local populations.
“Turtles play key roles in nature — they are predators, prey and ecosystem engineers,” Julia Sirois, St. Lawrence University (SLU) conservation biology student, told The Dodo. “It’s vital that we keep their populations healthy.”
To make sure that the local turtle population is doing well, biologists in Rhode Island need to physically see them first. But turtles in the wild are hard to spot with the human eye, so SLU’s conservation biology department decided to add a canine member to its team.
“Newt was specifically raised to be a conservation detection dog,” Sirois said.
Newt’s training started while he was still a young puppy. With the help of SLU’s Dr. Kris Hoffman, undergraduate student Hannah Duffy and a few expert trainers, Newt quickly learned how to track down specific scents.
“His training started with being rewarded when he smelled a tin containing birch,” Sirois said. “Then the game changed to picking out the scented tin among empty tins and eventually to finding hidden tins.”
One day, Newt’s trainers placed a single drop of birch oil on a football field. After Newt successfully found the drop of oil in less than a minute, his team decided it was time to introduce him to the scent of a spadefoot toad.
Soon, Newt started his first official assignment: tracking down spadefoot toads for the Mass Audubon.
Newt did so well with his spadefoot toad assignment that his second student handler, Sirois, decided to teach him to find rare turtles. At the same time, “biologists in Rhode Island were trying to learn where threatened turtle species lived within the state,” Sirois said.
So Newt and his handler joined the statewide conservation effort and quickly started finding at-risk turtles.
“Newt helped identify new areas with turtles that are species of greatest conservation need or threatened,” Sirois said. “Dr. Hoffman thought we would find an average of one turtle every three days, but instead we found an average of one turtle per day.”
When it comes to alerting his handlers about a new find, there are a few important things Newt does to keep both himself and the turtles safe.
“When Newt finds a turtle, he lays down facing it,” Sirois said. “He does not pick up the turtle.”
If Sirois can’t see the turtle he is alerting to at first, she gives Newt a command to move his nose closer to the turtle.
Once the turtle is identified, another member of the conservation team documents his location, how he behaves, and takes pictures of the unique pattern under his shell so that they can recognize the turtle again in future searches.
Every time Newt successfully identifies a turtle, Sirois rewards him with his most coveted toy. “His favorite things in life are tennis balls,” Sirois said. “He even taught himself as a puppy to toss the ball to people so that they would throw it faster.”
After running around happily with his ball for a few minutes, Sirois gives Newt a “search” command to keep surveying new areas.
When Newt isn’t on a search mission in the field, he can usually be found playing at home with Dr. Hoffman or by her side at work. But his handler emphasized that tracking dogs are not the same as house pets.
“He is high-energy, easily bored, over-excitable, an intelligent problem-solver and has no respect for quiet and downtime,” Sirois said. “He behaves more like a police dog than the average pet Labrador retriever.”
SLU hopes to add more dogs and students to their conservation program in the near future, which is completely dependent on the funding they receive.
“The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (RAWA) would be a game-changer,” Sirois said. “We could fund a whole Newt turtle team!”
Until then, Newt will continue to survey the scene alongside his devoted team and help change the world, one turtle at a time.
St. Lawrence University
University of Rhode Island
Rhode Island Dept. of Environmental Management
Roger Williams Park Zoo Conservation Initiatives
Rhode Island Natural History Survey – Godzala Research Fund
Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation
North Country Canine