Incredible, oil-sniffing dogs are a new secret weapon for cleaning up after disasters: ‘You’ve got a laboratory … on four legs’

Incredible, oil-sniffing dogs are a new secret weapon for cleaning up after disasters: ‘You’ve got a laboratory … on four legs’


From herding to search and rescue, dogs have essential jobs besides being man’s best friend. Dogs can now add a new title to their impressive resumes: oil detector.

Oil spills introduce millions of gallons of oil into the environment annually with devastating consequences. It can take years to clean up spills, especially since human surveyors struggle to detect all of the leaked oil.

With their impressive sense of smell, dogs could be the key to locating stray spots of oil that surveyors miss.


Environmental consultant Ed Owens and Paul Bunker, the owner and trainer for Chiron K9, a canine consultancy company, have joined forces to train dogs to discover hidden oil following spills.

After passing initial tests with flying colors, Owens and Bunker took the pack of oil-detecting hounds to an oil spill in Nova Scotia, Canada, for some real-world practice.

The results were impressive. The sharp-nosed canines uncovered all of the oil from a year-old shipwreck, even finding barely visible remnants that were missed by expert surveyors.

“Dogs’ noses are far more sensitive than any available technology,” Lucia Lazarowski, a cognitive and behavioral scientist at Auburn University, told Popular Mechanics regarding dogs’ ability to locate what devices cannot.

Oil spills are extremely dangerous to wildlife, humans, and ecosystems, making cleanup especially important.

Marine life is often the most noticeably affected by oil spills in the ocean and other bodies of water. Animals are frequently coated in oil and can die from poisoning or suffocation.

Oil spills can contaminate ecosystems and endanger animals for two to 10 years if it is undiscovered during cleanup efforts.

First responders, oil rig workers, and people who live and work in the area surrounding an oil spill are all at risk of health problems. Chemical reactions, potential fires, and fumes emanating from a spill can pollute water and the air, impacting your well-being.

Short-term effects include nausea and vomiting, skin injuries and rashes, memory loss, and headaches. While long-term effects are difficult to track, studies have found increased cancer risk, heart and lung issues, and reproductive problems.

Bunker’s dogs can detect surface and subsurface oil on land, which is useful for tanker spills or pipeline leaks. However, training the dogs to detect oil underwater is more difficult as trainers cannot add oil to a body of water.

With the help of a device that pumps oil vapor to the surface, researchers can emanate the scent in water. Bunker is now focusing on training his dogs to search for oil from the front of boats and direct watercrafts.

In the meantime, Bunker’s dogs have participated in multiple oil spill cleanups across North America between Alaska and Florida. Owens said he hopes detection dogs will be on the frontline of oil spill surveys in the future.

“You’ve got a laboratory right there on four legs that can run at a good speed,” he told Popular Mechanics. “It’s pretty amazing.”

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