Riverkeeper’s dog trained to sniff out sewer leaks
On February 1, after a TV news report aired about sewage leak in an apartment complex off Lumpkin Road, Tonya Bonitatibus decided it was time to go sewage sniffing. As the Savannah Riverkeeper, such things fall under her broad umbrella of duties, and when they do, she’s not the only one who heads out to investigate. So does her dog, Beaudreau.
Beaudreau, a Catahoula, is trained to sniff out sewage leaks the way bomb dogs are trained to sniff out explosives, and at the apartment complex he found one.
“As soon as he got out of the car he started working,” Bonitatibus says. “Every storm drain he checked, he hit on, which is unusual. We collected samples, and the fecal counts were too numerous to count, so there’s a problem there and the city and the owners are working together to try to resolve it.”
Because Beaudreau — she calls him Boo — is so good at what he does, she works closely with the Utilities Department to help them find sewage leaks. In fact, the Utilities Department helped fund Boo’s training.
Bonitatibus got the idea to train Boo back when the Ironman first came to town. At that time she was hired to collect E. coli samples out of the river and she found out there were two storm drains in the downtown area that had some high E. coli counts, but it took the city about two and a half weeks to find where the sewer lines were actually leaking.
“So I actually reached out to [Utilities Director] Tom Wiedmeier and said, ‘Look — I’ve got this crazy idea. I think I can train my dog, who’s a hunting dog, to find sewer line leaks. He’s certainly never found of pile of anything he didn’t love.’”
She says Wiedmeier loved the idea and wrote her a check for $3,500, which was about half the amount of the training.
“She had some research from an organization we’re members of — the Water Environment Research Foundation — and if they were looking at it, then I figured it had a lot of potential,” Wiedmeier says. “I was kind of sold the first time we talked about it, but I went to the administrator with it and he was a little skeptical at first.”
Skepticism aside, they wrote the check anyway, and from there she sought out Southern K9 Solutions, an Evans-based company that trains bomb dogs and drug detection dogs.
“I said I wanted to train him not on bombs or drugs, but on sewage, and after they got done laughing at me, they said they thought they could help me,” she says.
Owner Jerry Lyda still laughs when he remembers the request.
“I’m pretty good, huh?” he says. “Who would have thought about training a dog to find poop? They’re already pretty good at that.”
Dogs might be naturally good at finding poop, but to be effective as a detection dog, Lyda had to get Boo to distinguish between the different kinds of it.
“It’s just like narcotics, explosives, termites or bed bugs,” he says. “We teach them to find the specific odor, and after we teach them that, we teach them what to do when they find that odor.”
Drug dogs, for example, are trained to distinguish meth, cocaine, heroin, marijuana or any other kind of drug. If the dog smells any one of those, he’s trained to indicate it.
“The same is true for the sewage dog,” he says. “We train him to find sewage. He won’t alert on dog mess, he won’t alert on animal feces or anything like that. It’s going to be human sewage that he finds.”
Such training takes time, Lyda says, since you’ve first got to get the dog trained to find the specific odor, then you’ve got to mix other odors with it to keep the dog honest. And once you’ve got the dog trained, you’ve got to keep working him or else the dog will lose the ability.
Bonitatibus doesn’t have to worry about Boo losing his ability. The two are constantly searching out sewage, either in town or streamside.
“He’s a Louisiana breed that hunts wild boar, and the reason I have him is because I spend a lot of time outside in some wetlands and along the banks of the river where there are hogs,” she says. “I don’t like hogs, so he’s my security blanket. Plus, he’s pretty good at tracking, so we just put the two together.”
Not only that, she says the dog has actually gotten better at what he does. Though trained to stick his head into storm drains and indicate whether there was a leak or not, while investigating a sewage leak along Jones Creek, Boo was able to work his way up the creek and find three leaks.
Though Bonitatibus says Boo is not the only sewage sniffing dog in the country — she has also found sewage dogs in Michigan — she says Boo is in high demand, and not just around here. Last year, the two flew to Portland, Oregon, to do a presentation where they found three leaks in the midst of their show and they’re also planning to spend some time in Texas as well. Boo has also served as an expert witness in a court case.
Boo is a good natured, playful dog, but once his working harness is on and Bonitatibus starts speaking German, which is how he’s been trained to receive commands, he’s all business.
“One of the greatest things about him — every time I go into a neighborhood, he’s loud, and that attracts attention,” she says. “He’s a magnet for kids.”
And those kids, she says, often provide her with the best information.
“As soon as he shows up, kids come from everywhere,” she says. “Then, it’s ‘Hey guys — where have you been falling in holes? Show me where the holes are and show me where it’s stinky.’ The kids know where all the problems are.”
And while she says sometimes people aren’t happy with Boo sniffing around private property, they usually leave her alone because although the dog is naturally friendly and loveable, he’s also big and imposing. Most of the time, though, she says owners are happy to hear her findings.
“Sometimes you run into people who just don’t want to fix the problem, but often it’s very expensive to find the problem, and that’s what’s so cool about him. He works cheap and he’s really about his job.”
That enthusiasm is evident as she leads him around the storm drains in Olde Town, where he sniffs and moves on and sniffs and moves on until she leads him to a manhole cover with a little vent. There, he drops down, and waits for the payoff — a little ball that serves as his reward.
Thanks to grants from the Georgia River Networks and Patagonia, the two will be working with the city a lot come spring, and if everything comes together they way she hopes it will, she’ll soon have a training center at the new Riverkeeper property she’s developing.
“We’ve written it into our strategic plan and it’s part of what we’re going to move forward with,” she says. “Not only working him in the basin where needed, but also helping others to have the same ability and training other dogs to go to other facilities.” You Might Also Like: