Sewage Sniffers

May 29, 2018

Written by: Joshua Vissers

Abby, Sable, and Kenna are breaking ground in a new area for working canines: human sewage detection. The company they, and the humans that train them, work for is the first of its kind in the world. Environmental Canine Services (ECS) has branches in Maine, California, and Michigan. They have seven dogs ready to work, and two more in training.

In 2017, Kenna and her trainer Laura Symonds appeared in the Hillsdale Daily News for work they did with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

“It was certainly cool,” said Molly Rippke, the DEQ aquatic biologist that worked with the team.

Kenna, Symonds, and Rippke were working in the Lime Lake Watershed in southern Michigan. They were trying to find the cause of dangerous levels of E.coli in the Lake by testing the stream that feeds the lake where it crosses beneath public roads.

“It confirmed what was already suspected,” Rippke said.

The dogs detected human contamination in almost all of the sample areas. While lab testing for E.coli is still necessary, Rippke says that combining lab testing with canine detection gives them nearly 100% certainty of human contamination.

A 2011 report funded by the Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF) and completed in partnership with the City of Santa Barbara, California and the University of California tested two ECS canines, Logan and Sable, compared to lab tests.

“We used to call him Sable the Sniffer” until he passed away earlier this year, said Karen Reynolds, his trainer. Reynolds founded ECS with her husband, Scott, in 2009.

Neither dog gave any false negatives during the test, meaning if they found no signs of human contamination, the lab tests didn’t find any either.

There were a couple positives that couldn’t be supported by lab tests, but the study points out the possibility that the dogs are responding to a lower concentration than lab tests can detect, or they might be smelling a component of human waste that the lab tests don’t account for.

ECS also accepts mailed-in samples for their dogs to test.

“It’s very popular, called ship and sniff,” Reynolds said.

Not only do the dogs offer an immediate response, they don’t draw a large salary, either.

“They’re a pretty affordable option,” Rippke said, highlighting “ship and sniff” as particularly inexpensive.

Not only that, but the dogs enjoy the work, which is based entirely on positive rewards like treats and their favorite toys.

“They’ll work all day,” Reynolds said. WERF’s report even said they would happily work longer than their handlers would, “even during hot weather.”

More information about ECS and their canine employees can be found at their website: