Cindy Sawchuk with Hilo.

There was a special four-footed guest in Penticton last week. Hilo is a black lab cross golden retriever who works for the Alberta government as part of the Conservation K-9 Unit.

This working dog is part of a team of three canines which have an incredibly important job – they search boats for invasive mussels!

Destructive zebra and quagga mussels are getting closer to Canadian western provinces every year. In response to this looming threat, Alberta’s Ministry of Environment and Parks piloted incorporating detection dogs into their Aquatic Invasive Species program in 2015.

The program has been a tremendous success, both in terms of the accuracy and efficiency of using the mussel-sniffing canines, and also in terms of public relations which have been extremely positive.

The sniffing capabilities of these canines is amazing. While a human has approximately five million sense receptors in their nose, a dog has 225 million.

As Hilo's handler Cindy Sawchuk explained, when we walk into a kitchen and smell a cake baking in the oven, these dogs smell the cake a block away and they smell flour, butter, eggs, cocoa and all the separate ingredients.

Alberta has partnered with the program Working Dogs for Conservation, who assisted in acquiring and training the dogs.

Each dog has received 140 hours of intensive training in California where mussels have already invaded the waterways.

Testing conducted by Sawchuk to compare boat inspections done by humans versus the dogs, revealed 100 per cent accuracy by the dogs and 2.3 minutes to search the watercraft, while only 75 per cent accuracy by humans and more than double the time.

The detection dogs have recently received further training to search shorelines for mussels. Their skills were put to the test late last year in Montana following the discovery of mussel larvae in a reservoir. Alberta and Montana have partnered with the working dogs from the onset of the program, and Montana now has their own dog team following on the heels (or paws!) of Alberta's success.

In addition to detecting mussels, the dogs have now been cross-trained to search for invasive weeds. They have been used in a provincial park to help determine the extent of an invasive plant which is the only known Canadian location of this unwanted invader. The target weed is extremely challenging for humans to find due to the tall native grasses.

Sawchuk excitedly stated that the next step for the dogs is training to detect the mussel larvae which are microscopic and float in water, and can be unknowingly transported on boats in bilge or ballast water.

In March of this year, the BC government announced that our province will have a mussel detection dog on the job this summer.

For further information on invasive species go to our website:, Facebook page or contact the Program Coordinator for the Okanagan-Similkameen, Lisa Scott, at 250-404-0115 or

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