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Thursday, June 16, 2022

Newt hunts turtles

DEM’s Latest – and Cutest – Turtle Tracker is a Dog

By Cynthia Drummond / ecoRI News contributor

Newt is spending several weeks this summer working on a Rhode
Island turtle survey. His handler is St. Lawrence University senior
Julia Sirois. (Kristine Hoffmann)

Newton, appropriately nicknamed Newt, is a fox red Labrador retriever trained to detect several species of turtles. He comes to work every day raring to go, and is delighted to be paid in tennis balls.

Newt and his handler, St. Lawrence University senior Julia Sirois, are a couple of weeks into a six-week summer project to survey Rhode Island’s most threatened turtle species.

The research project is a collaboration involving the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), the University of Rhode Island, St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., and Roger Williams Park Zoo.

DEM state herpetologist Scott Buchanan said there were several turtle species the state wanted to learn more about.

“We’re two weeks into this, and I would say, already we can be certain that Newt is proficient at finding turtles,” he said. “Whether Newt will be ultimately more proficient than just a team of people doing visual encounter surveys is one of the questions that we want to try to answer, and we are framing the work around that question.”

The primary objective of the study is to find out how many turtles of the less-common species are living in Rhode Island and where they are.

Buchanan said Newt and Sirois would complement ongoing conventional visual surveys.

“Having another team out there with a dog is just an opportunity to learn more,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to potentially identify new populations and to learn more about existing populations.”

Newt and Sirois are conducting repeated surveys at three sites.

“We learn a little bit more with every new turtle that we find,” Buchanan said.

In the case of one rare species, every one of Newt’s finds is a small victory.

Newt, who wears goggles to protect his eyes from the
underbrush, has been trained to detect turtles. (Julia Sirois)

“We know so little about the species on the landscape across all of Rhode Island that the simple act of Newt finding a new turtle in a new location might put that location on our radar for the first time,” Buchanan said. “It all begins with inventory and monitoring.”

(The species and locations of the research are not being disclosed in this story out of concern about poaching, mostly for the pet trade.)

In addition to being recorded in a database, each turtle is marked and fitted with a passive integrated responder, or PIT tag, which contains a microchip that allows researchers to track its movements.

The data will be analyzed after the conclusion of the fieldwork.

Newt’s owner, Kristine Hoffmann, is Sirois’ conservation biology professor at St. Lawrence University. Hoffmann said she had considered several dog breeds before settling on a Labrador retriever.

“Because I’m a reptile and amphibian biologist, I wanted something that was going to be happy in the water, easy to pull ticks off of, dry really quick,” she said.

Hoffmann acquired Newt from Radar Kennel in Ohio, which specializes in breeding field dogs. As a highly specialized dog that needs to work, he would be ill-suited to life as a family pet.

“They breed and train hunting dogs,” Hoffmann said. “Newt is specifically trained for upland game, so he’s more scent-oriented and more upland-oriented than a normal Labrador that would be watching to see where the gun is pointing and trying to watch the birds as they fall.”

Newt and Hoffmann trained with K9 College, a service and narcotics detection dog training facility in Watertown, N.Y.

Newt lives with Hoffmann in her home, but she describes him as more of a companion than a pet.

“He is like my little boy, but he’s not like a pet,” she said. “He is very hyper when he’s not working. He’s got a lot of energy and a lot of emotion, and I tell people he’s got very high emotions and very low thresholds.”

When Newt is not working, he is exercising.

“We do a lot of three-hour walks or an hour of fetch, and that calms him down enough that I can live with him, but he’s not satisfied the way he is when he’s working,” Hoffmann said.

Hoffmann also brings Newt to her office at the university.

“I have a gate at the end of my office. When students walk by in the hallway, he puts his head out in the hallway and all the students pet him. He gets a lot of attention from the students. A lot of them will take him for walks during the day, too,” she said.

Newt spent part of last summer on Cape Cod, looking for spadefoot toads, but it turned out that he was far more adept at sniffing out turtles.

“I wanted to find a project where he would actually make a real difference,” Hoffmann said. “He’s much better at turtles.”

When Newt detects a turtle, he signals, or alerts, by lying down.

“Some of his finds have been exciting for me,” she said. “There was a pile of brush that was probably a meter and a half tall and two meters wide and he was walking around it and walking around it, and then he lay down and alerted and looked up and stared at me, just smiling and panting. And I came over and looked, and there was a turtle in the middle of this pile of brush and there was just no way I could have found that without him.”

Reached at her home in Portland, Maine, on her day off, Sirois described her relationship with Newt, who could be heard in the background, panting and giving the occasional low bark.

“He’s been really good roommate, I have to say,” she said. “He’s actually really, really good at just relaxing when it’s time, because of the amount of work he does, so it makes it a lot easier for me,” she said.

On days when the team is working, they are in the field for up to six hours.

Newt, a Labrador retriever who has been trained to sniff out turtles,
works for one, and only one reward, his ball. Newt has been paired with
St. Lawrence University senior Julia Sirois on a Rhode Island turtle survey
that is taking place over several weeks this summer. (Kris Hoffmann)

“He’s working that whole time,” Sirois said. “He gets breaks every 20 minutes or, at the end of a transect, which is a kilometer long, he gets a good break where he’s playing fetch, he’s relaxing, swimming, and then on our days off, I’m out all day with him, pretty much.”

Sirois began scent training with Newt more than a year ago.

“I got to start going to different courses with him, learning more about the importance of the handler in putting him in the right direction of the wind, understanding how scents move, winds move, in order to best set the dog up for success,” she said. 

“And then, I learned a lot about body language, his cues, and got to start building on that. So then, this past fall, I had the opportunity to pick a species and start training him on it myself, with [Hoffmann’s] guidance, of course.”

Newt isn’t the first turtle-detection dog, but he is the first one to work in Rhode Island. Lou Perrotti, director of conservation programs at Roger Williams Park Zoo, said he liked the idea of using a dog to find turtles.

“I’ve seen the use of dogs … using them for scat detection, population monitoring, but now, to use dogs to help us find elusive species, I think, is very beneficial for us,” he said. “These dogs can help us find the little-age classes that are almost impossible to find — hatchlings, sub-adults. These are very secretive animals for humans to find but a dog’s nose can pick them right up, so I think it’s valuable for us in making sure that any research we are doing with any particular turtle species, we can get the whole picture by using dogs.”

Newt’s motivation is not conservation, or play, or even treats. It’s his ball.

“He will do his job so he can get his ball, because he doesn’t care about the turtle,” Hoffman said. “If you put food in front of him and you’re holding the ball, he will not eat the food. He wants the ball.”