We’re going to deviate from our typical life sciences for just a few moments just for fun to talk about dogs. We’ve heard about dogs using their olfactory system to detect biologic changes related to disease. Having a bit of a soft spot for dogs ourselves here at Qualio, when our friend Kayla Fratt reached out to be on the show, we thought it’d be fun to hear about her work in ecology and in the field doing conservation work.
Kayla is the founder of K9 Conservationists and Journey Dog Training. She trains dogs to detect data for researchers, agencies, and NGOs. Along with the rest of the K9 Conservationists team, Kayla travels the world collecting data with her dogs and offering support to conservation detection dog programs.
As a dog lover myself I'm thrilled to chat with Kayla today and how dogs are leaving their “paw prints” on the world.
Kayla Fratt is the founder of K9 Conservationists and Journey Dog Training. With her nonprofit K9 Conservationists, Kayla trains dogs to detect data for researchers, agencies, and NGOs. Along with the rest of the K9 Conservationists team, Kayla travels the world collecting data with her dogs and offering support to conservation detection dog programs. Her other business, Journey Dog Training, provides the financial stability and freedom to pursue the nonprofit. Journey Dog Training offers free and low-cost behavior advice to owners struggling with their pet’s behaviors.
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Hi, I'm Kelly from Qualio and I'm your host here at From Lab Launch. We've published over 60 interviews with innovators in life sciences across the world. It's been so inspiring to hear the stories of perseverance and innovation to improve human health and save lives. If you've enjoyed our conversations, please consider subscribing and giving us a review on Apple or Spotify. And if you wanna be on From Lab to launch, please see the application linked in the show notes. So today we're going to deviate from our typical life sciences for just a few moments, just for fun to talk about dogs. We've heard about dogs using their olfactory systems to detect biologic changes related to diseases and having a bit of a soft spot for dogs ourselves here at Qualio. When our friend Kayla Frat reached out to be on the show, we thought it would be fun to hear about her work in ecology. Kayla is the founder of Canine Conservationists and Journey Dog Training. She trains dogs to detect data for researchers, agencies and NGOs. Along with the rest of the Canine Conservationists team. Kayla travels the world collecting data with her dogs and offering support to conservation detection dog programs. She also trained dogs and runs her own podcast for anyone looking with training their own dogs at home. See the show notes for more detail. And as a dog lover myself, I'm thrilled to chat with Kayla today and how dogs are leaving their paw prints on the world. Let's bring her in. Thanks for joining us today.Kayla Fratt:
Yeah, thanks so much for having me on. I'm excited to be here.Kelly Stanton:
Awesome. Awesome. So you've got quite a background. Can you share a little bit more with us about your journey, on how you got here?Kayla Fratt:
Yeah, so I think, you know, there's obviously a through line between both of these businesses and that's dogs. Um, so I grew up on a farm in northern Wisconsin and was always kind of a, a bit of an animal, um, animal lover As a kid, you know, I did four H and all that sort of stuff. Um, and I always kind of assumed I was gonna go to school and be, um, a biologist. I kind of thought I wanted to be a Jane Goodall sort of figure was the idea. and that is, that's kind of where Canine Conservationists came about, was basically, I. I've always loved being able to interact with animals and train them and work with them hands on. And that's not necessarily reality in conservation or ecology research. Um, generally nowadays, we don't spend a lot of time interacting with our study species anymore. so when I heard about the field of conservation detection dogs, I pretty much immediately was. Oh my gosh. That's what I wanna be doing with my life. That's perfect. I had been training dogs professionally for a couple years already at the point that I'd heard about it and I was most of the way through my degree in ecology. So it just really clicked into place. But it took, took a while to kind of figure out how to get from that point of hearing about the field and knowing that it's what I wanted to do, to actually being able to break into the field and now running my own.Kelly Stanton:
Nice. Nice. That's an interesting story too. Ecology, that's, kind of ties it all together,Kayla Fratt:
Yeah. Yeah, exactly.Kelly Stanton:
tell us a bit more then about how canine conservationists can contribute to life sciences in general. Maybe ecology specifically.Kayla Fratt:
Yeah. Yeah. So basically the, the field of conservation detection dogs is based on the premise that there are always gaps in a, whatever method we're using to study. The world. say you wanna study an endangered animal and you wanna know how many of them there are, kind of a basic question. We need to know how many there are in order to know whether that population is gaining, gaining numbers, or losing numbers. And, you know, all sorts of really, really basic stuff, but it's a lot harder to actually count animals out of the wild than you'd think. Um, so that's one of the main ways that conservation detection dogs can be useful is they're often kind of involved in projects where you might have a camera trap set up, which is just a camera that you would like strap to a tree. It's motion activated, and then you can kind of use that to figure out how many bobcats are in an area, or how many tigers or whatever it. but those can often be really slow, to actually detect something. So there was a study, and I might get this a little bit wrong, but basically they, it took eight weeks for a camera trap to actually get a photo of a, um, of a bobcat that was in an area versus taking a detection dog. That dog found the scat within just, um, two days
searching. So it's a lot faster in some. And then they're also able to detect different sorts of data. So for example, in the case of that Bobcat, if you get a picture of a bobcat, then you say, Okay, great. It looks like we've got one male bobcat in this area. Well, let's leave the camera trap up for a bit longer, see if we find any more. But that's kind of all, you know, obviously I'm, I'm simplifying a little bit there, but the dogs are trained to actually find the poop. And what we can do with the poop of a bobcat is we can figure out what he's been eating, what his hormone levels are like. We may be able to see what diseases he has, what parasites he has. if we take the dogs out in a big wide area, we can figure out. Many different places he's pooping and therefore where he's moving, hypothetically then where he's not moving. So there's just all sorts of stuff from the animal lens that we can pick up from these dogs. Um, and again, they're kind of part of a big team effort for studying those animals. And then our conservation dogs can also be used for all sorts of other things. So they can be used with invasive species, um, where they're kind of helping find any invasive plants that are left over after a eradication effort has already started. They can be used in toxicology to try to find diseases. you know, we've seen that with c o which isn't necessarily in the conservation realm, but, um, there are other diseases that definitely fall within that realm. And there's, there's just, there's dozens and dozens of applications. Um, I think there. Recent paper published that had about 961 different targets, um, listed in that paper as it was like a big literature review. So I'm obviously not gonna go into all of them, but hopefully that gives you and your listeners a, a bit of an overview.Kelly Stanton:
No, absolutely. And, and I have, you know, I'm familiar with the idea of, of the dogs detecting covid and of course being, you know, life sciences industry, we're always really interested in are there ways to go about, you know, like sniffing out certain types of cancers mm-hmm. and those kinds of things. Mm-hmm. to help, to help with that detection. So, um, I, I guess along those lines then, uh, tell me a little bit about some of the most memorable or impactful projects that you've been involved in.Kayla Fratt:
Yeah. So right now for canine conservationists specifically, um, we're doing a lot of work with capacity building for other organizations. So the kind of niche we've been operating in is if you're another smaller organization that is partway through, through training your dogs and you've hit a roadblock, we kind of get to come in and help out. Um, and then we've also been doing a lot of work with maybe, like, there's a single biologist who's working on training their dog, but they're running into roadblocks. We've been really working on. Helping to step in and fill those gaps, which has been really cool as a way to kind of expand our reach and get more impact. Because as much as we love doing the field work, we're just three, three women and four dogs. We can't do it all Um, so my favorite project so far has been we got to spend about three months between the three of us in, um, Northern Kenya this year working with a program called Action for Cheetahs in Kenya. They have two conservation detection dogs that are obviously trained to work with cheetahs, um, or find cheetah scat. Um, and what they had run into is that they had a hundred percent turnover on their team. So they had nobody experienced left on the team after covid. Um, and it is a very small team. It's two or three people max, so it's, it's not like they lost 18 people all at once, but still. So they were just in this position where they had two well trained dogs, but no humans who knew how to do anything with them and nobody to mentor these new handlers. So we kind of came in and, um, helped them out for about three months. And, um, I just submitted two grant proposals to hopefully go back and continue working with them more. Um, one of the things we do really struggle with in this, in this field is just funding. Um, conservation is chronically underfunded. Working with conservation dogs can be expensive. There's a lot of upkeep and maintenance and they're not a tool that you can just kind of like program use for a season, throw in the closet, come back, use it again next season. so there is a lot of expense involved and what we have definitely been struggling with, um, in a variety of ways is figuring out how to get the funding needed in order to do this. These projects really.Kelly Stanton:
Yeah, we're, we're definitely seeing, um, shifts, you know, in, in funding in general for all sorts of things in this current economic climate. So it's, uh, unfortunate to hear you guys are being hit with that too. do you focus on specific dog breeds or just any dog?Kayla Fratt:
Both, uh uh, yes. And um, so we generally what we're looking for are dogs that are really easily motivated to work. Um, so generally that means we're looking for dogs that are like over the top, obsessed with Frisbees or tennis balls, or are maybe just big old chow hounds. So that we've kind of got something that we can easily put in our pocket and reward them for their hard work and keep them focused. generally that means we do tend to err on the side of dogs that are really obsessed with toys, which means we tend to get a lot of the same breeds. So we get a lot of border collies labs, shepherds, spans, and kind of mixes of those breeds Basically any dog breed has the old factory capabilities to do this. So it's not so much about whether or not they, their sniffer works. There's actually a really interesting study that came out a while ago that found that pugs outperformed German shepherds on an odor discrimination task. So like really It is not at all about like the blood hounds have superior noses or anything like that. Like, That, you know, it's, it's really, we're looking at the dogs that are easily motivated and have the temperament to work with us. Um, although we do look at some kind of physiological traits as far as like, we probably wouldn't work with a pug just because we're often covering miles and miles every day and those little stubby legs and short nose and, you know, kind of bummer of a breathing system are not gonna do a great job for us So, um, while they may do well in a. Um, for us out in the wilderness, we like us, the four of us at Canine Conservationists, we all have Border Colly mixes.Kelly Stanton:
Ah, interesting. Yeah, I was just thinking like pugs might be fantastic though for that, for that like medical or laboratory sort of mm-hmm. application. Right. Cuz then they don't totally trek across the woods, but they'veKayla Fratt:
got great sniffers. Yeah. And they're not scary, you know, they're portable. They would have a lot of pluses I think for something like that. Um, definitely,Kelly Stanton:
So tell us a little bit about a day in the life of a conservation detection dog handler.Kayla Fratt:
Yeah, so there's kind of two main modes for us. Um, mode One is when we're out in the field, which is probably what everyone wants to know about. And then mode two is when we're not in the field. We just finished up three months straight of field work and we probably have about six months-ish before we go back into the field. So now I'm kind of in the really boring stage of grant writing, catching up on emails. We do a lot of remote mentorship, so it's a lot of time on Zoom. I also, as if we mentioned, like I also run Journey Dog training and that kind of provides additional financial stability in between the field work. So this time of year it's, um, while I love the content of my work, it doesn't necessarily look all that sexy, um, although it is also paired with then making sure that the dogs stay in shape and that they're well trained and all that good stuff. So I do get to do a lot of, you know, I get to take my dogs for a run later today and that counts as work Um, Nice. Nice. Yeah. And then when we're in the field, um, generally there, it's gonna be a super early morning wake up. because dogs don't sweat, and when they're panting, they can't sniff as well. We're really trying to get up and beat the heat. Um, and that's pretty much always a factor for us. Wherever we're working. So we get up really early, we drive to our field site, and then it varies a little bit. So I'm gonna focus on our most recent project that I just dropped up about two weeks ago, which was working on wind farms, finding dead bats and dead birds. Um, and there I'm driving out to the wind farm and I have a set of turbines that it's my job to search every day. And each wind turbine has like a hundred meter by a hundred meters square underneath it. That I get to pull up on my GPS and see where that's gonna be. And then my job is to basically try to keep my dog and I, um, within that square, cover it effectively and help my dog make sure that he's hitting all of the different corners of it as far as how the wind is flowing. When he finds, um, a bat or a bird or whatever else it is, then it's my job to kind of come over, double check what he's got. Cuz occasionally they'll, you know, they'll bring me to like a dead frog or something and say, Hey, what about this? Um, and then it's kind of my job to say no. Uh, good try, but we're here looking for birds and bets. And then if they've found something, we play a great game of fetch. We throw a big party and then I get to sit down with a data sheet and take down a bunch of, you know, boring things like wing measurements and what species it is and how long it's been dead and all that sort of stuff. Ah, fun. Fun. And then we repeat. So it's, it is, it's funny because it's one of those jobs that like, is simultaneously incredibly cool sounding. Um, and like the photos are amazing and everything. And it is, don't get me wrong, I love it, but there's also definitely a lot of time that we spend just like looking at poop and looking at dead things and like, um, you definitely have to. Kind of get used to that and be okay with that. Just like, you know, a lot of, a lot of stuff in the biological world. It's a lot of bodily fluids and that sort of stuff.Kelly Stanton:
definitely, definitely. No, the, uh, a, a good solid love of, of science and all that goes with it. Mm-hmm. is, uh, sounds like it's important here.Kayla Fratt:
Yep. And a good pa, pair of gloves.Kelly Stanton:
Yeah. definitely, definitely a good pair of gloves. Awesome. Well, so how can people get involved and follow along with you?Kayla Fratt:
Yeah, so we're pretty active online. If you just kind of type canine conservationists, it's letter K, number nine into your Google. You'll come up with us. Um, We're probably most active on Instagram, and then we do have coaching opportunities as well. So one of the, again, one of the things we're really passionate about is helping more people get involved in this. So we have, um, a group coaching club through Patreon where people can kind of get involved, especially if you wanted to do like community science with your own dog. Um, and you just kind of wanted to maybe train your dog to do this and help out occasionally on the weekends with like invasive weeds or something. That would be a great place to start. We also have like a full sweet course. So if you were more interested in trying to do this professionally, that would be where to go and all of that again, you can just kind of find through Googling canine conservationists. Sure,Kelly Stanton:
Well, and, and I, I would hope to, to kind of spread the word again from a life, you know, life sciences perspective, right? Like how mm-hmm. it's an interesting way to kind of think out of the box and, and with some different detection methodology and whatnot. Yeah. That. That's kind of exciting.Kayla Fratt:
So yeah, and I totally dropped the ball too. We do also have a free podcast, so that's really the best way to learn more. Cause you don't have to pay us any money for that. And you know, if you like what you're hearing and you're really feeling very interested, then you can start thinking about paying us money for more mentorship. That's always my first question when people reach out for mentorship is, Oh hey, have you gone back through the backlog of the podcasts yet? Have you, you know, do you feel like you're caught up on all the free stuff first before, I'm gonna go ahead and take your money for anythingKelly Stanton:
Awesome. All right, well, thank you so much for your time today. It's been really interesting talking with you and, uh, look forward to seeing where you guys take that in the future.Kayla Fratt:
Yeah. Thank you so much. It was great.