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Sewer dogs keep things tidy

They're trained to detect human excrement

May 16, 2012

Trained dogs have been used to sniff out drugs, bombs and people, but now Milwaukee Riverkeeper has begun using canines to identify human excrement in the stormwater system.

German shepherd Sable and collie mix Logan spent two days last week checking out manholes in the Wauwatosa to see where fecal matter might be leaking from the sanitary sewer to the storm sewer and ultimately draining into the Menomonee River.

The job is quick and the dogs don't put up a stink. After a manhole cover is removed, the dogs take a whiff. If they detect the fecal matter, they give an alert - one sits on the edge while the other barks. For their efforts, they get a snack or playtime with a squeaky toy.

Milwaukee Riverkeeper received a $4,000 grant from Sweet Water Trust, which oversees watersheds in southeastern Wisconsin, to test the procedure. The group brought in the dog duo and their handlers Karen and Scott Reynolds, who own Michigan-based from Environmental Canine Services.

They walked two areas of the city checking out about 40 manholes that connect to two of the most problematic stormwater drainage areas, said riverkeeper Cheryl Nenn. There was good news near Hillcrest Drive and Forest Street, where the dogs detected no contamination. However, downstream of Milwaukee Avenue through the Village had numerous hits identifying a problematic path.

By identifying specific manholes, officials hope that the suspect area could be narrowed from entire neighborhoods to a smaller stretch of pipe for further investigatation, said Maggie Anderson, civil engineer with the city.

Representatives from the UWM-Great Lakes Water Institute tagged along to pull water samples from the same manholes, a more typical and time-consuming way of testing.

Riverkeeper staff and volunteers have provided the manpower to take water samples along a 10-mile stretch of the Menomonee River between Burleigh Street and Hawley Road for the past few years. They then turn them over turn them over to the institute lab.

So far 60 percent of the stormwater outfalls tested by the lab have come up positive for human bacteria, Nenn said.

"We're going to look at what the samples tell us versus what the dogs find," she said.

The Reynolds, dog trainers with background in law enforcement and search and rescue efforts, believe they are the first company of its kind. As more municipalities around the country are mandated to monitor and improve their stormwater systems, Environmental Canine Services has seen a growing demand for its services.

The idea came when Scott worked on a sewer project for a former employer.

"My boss knew about my background in scent-tracking, so he asked me, 'Do you think you can train a dog to sniff (human) poo?' "

The handlers say they've achieved that goal, and they're working with researchers at Michigan State to prove it.

The water testing is part of an ongoing effort to rid the river of pollution so it can one day be safe to swim and fish in, Nenn said.

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