New to this year’s fishing opener: AIS-sniffing K-9s

MARSHALL – They can be trained to find drugs stashed in someone’s home and all sorts of contraband at airports. They’re used to track missing people and fugitives. They protect your home and family.

So why not use dogs to sniff out aquatic invasive species?

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is hoping man’s best friend can help it do just that, as the problem of the illegal transportation of invasive species has proven to be more stubborn than most thought, especially since many boat owners are either unaware of the problem or are flat out too lazy to drain their boats and buckets and clean everything off as they jump from lake to lake.

Minnesota this year will become the second state to use trained dogs to help prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species. The mussel-detecting K-9s will be also trained in tracking, evidence recovery, firearms detection and wildlife detection.

The DNR says zebra mussels can multiply out of control and alter the ecosystem of a body of water and are often transported from lake to lake by boaters.

The mussels are about the size of a fingernail, and their larvae are microscopic. They have been discovered on various lakes across the state.

DNR Conservation Officer Larry Hanson, who worked as a K-9 handler with the Marshall Police Department during his 15 years of service before moving to the DNR, said he’s excited to get out with his dog Digger this weekend. Hanson is one of three conservation officers who will be out on the lakes for this weekend’s opener.

“It will be a lot of fun to see how the public reacts,” Hanson said. “I think this is a good thing because it will make people more aware. If they see me sitting at an access with a dog, it will make them think twice.”

The DNR began cracking down on boaters a year ago as the AIS problem literally spread throughout Minnesota. Boaters are now required by law to remove aquatic plants, zebra mussels and other prohibited species from their boats, trailers and equipment before leaving one lake to go to another.

“Basically, part of our responsibility is to make sure those boats aren’t carrying them around, especially the velligers – the microscopic state of a zebra mussel,” Hanson said. “Those are the things you can’t see, so they could be in your live well, and you wouldn’t even know it.”

Hanson’s dog is a 92-pound, 3-year-old black lab and is a rescue dog. When he first got Digger, Hanson said he admits he was a little worried about his demeanor.

“He was kind of an uncontrollable type,” said Hanson. “When I first got him he was bouncing off the walls and he’s a big dog. But he really came around and turned out to be a very good dog. The training really did him good.”

Hanson said the training lasts for five weeks and is similar to how dogs are trained to find drugs. The training of the three dogs started with a four-week venison program. After the dogs learned how to sniff and follow their owner’s lead, the trainers introduced them to zebra mussels.

“After those first four weeks, it took about one day to get them trained with zebra mussels,” Hanson said. “It went very quick, because they had already been through training with venison, so they basically just had to be imprinted with the zebra mussel smell.

Hanson said each dog has proven to be very proficient at detecting zebra mussels. He said because dogs naturally have a very strong sense of smell, the only question is how to incorporate the dogs at accesses.

Hanson won’t be in the area for this weekend’s opener, which is a good thing – it means there are no issues with zebra mussels in area lakes. But, he said, that can change considering how easily invasive can be transported long distances.

“There are no zebra mussels we know of in southwest Minnesota; the closest area would probably be Lake Minnewaska, and they were also found in Iowa in Lake Okoboji,” he said. “All it takes is one boat to bring them to a lake. That’s what we’re trying to avoid.”