While some conservation dog organizations travel the globe to save the world, others stick close to home, like the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference. They’re stationed out of Mahwah, New Jersey, and focus on work mainly in the lower Hudson Valley and Northern New Jersey.
Today we are chatting with Arden, who isn't a dog handler, but a program assistant. Her involvement is crucial in the team’s success, and a great example of how one can become involved with a conservation dog organization without having a significant background in dog handling.
This small team is part of a bigger organization, and doing great work for the region in managing invasive species like spotted lanternfly, Scotch broom, and slender false brome. Read on to learn more about them and their great work!
Tell us a bit about the working dogs you work with.
I currently do not have a working dog but we are keeping an eye out for one from a rescue or shelter. We are hoping to build relationships with rescue organizations in the New York and New Jersey area so that when a dog that has amazing work ethic, is toy obsessed, is dog and people friendly, etc. comes through their doors, they can contact us instead of having that dog end up in a pet home it may not be compatible with. I’ve always been a rescue advocate and I’d love to give a dog a home where it can reach its full potential. We have two dogs in the program right now and both are handled by our program manager, Josh Beese. Josh works with a 6 year old Belgian Malinois named Fagen and a 2 year old Labrador retriever named Dia. Fagen can detect the invasive insect, spotted lanternfly, and is a certified live-find SAR K9 for New Jersey Task Force 1 and FEMA. Dia can detect spotted lanternfly, but also an invasive shrub, Scotch broom, and a notoriously difficult-to-identify invasive grass, slender false brome. Our program is unique in that our dogs search for only invasive species and work permanently in the lower Hudson valley and northern New Jersey region.
What is your professional background?
I began my career in ecology when I worked in an ecotoxicology lab as an undergrad at Virginia Tech, then graduated with a degree in Biochemistry and Biology. I worked with mainly aquatic species like snapping turtles, eastern hellbenders, and leeches. I went on to pursue a master’s degree from Purdue where my thesis focused on human-wildlife conflict mitigation and animal behavior. However, I’ve also worked for the USDA and spent quite some time soul searching about how I really wanted to apply my skills and create a fulfilling career for myself.
How did you get into working with dogs?
My dad is a hunter so I was involved with training bird dogs growing up. I became more involved as an adult when I adopted a dog from a shelter and began working to resolve some behavioral issues which was definitely a different kind of training experience than what I had growing up. I’m only just beginning to learn and grow as a trainer. I’d say I’m still “getting into” it now because there is so much to learn in this field. Shadowing Josh, who started as a disaster search and rescue handler/trainer, has been incredibly insightful and helpful.
I think some people get the impression that we just lead the dogs around on a leash, but we, humans and dogs, are partners and we’re both solving an evolving puzzle! I remember going to a site that had already been visited by a crew that had removed the plant species we were looking for. Dia found at least 20 more plants that they had missed and that were barely visible to us because of thick vegetation. I also remember visiting a site where there were plants everywhere. Dia changed her strategy and did not indicate at each plant. Instead, she walked a perimeter around them so we could see where the edge of the infestation was.
What does your typical work day look like when at ‘home’?
Currently I am working remotely but go to the office twice a week. I have diverse responsibilities. I take care of our social media accounts, manage data from training and field visits, and help write reports and grants. A lot of what we do is plan for the program in the next year, five years, ten years etc, so a big part of my job is helping the program manager set our team up for success.
What advice do you have for people interested in entering the conservation dog field?
I think it’s important to have some experience working outdoors whether it be as a wildlife technician, a landscaper or even on a farm. Field work can be physically grueling and working in the conservation field means you need to understand the ecology of the environment your target is in. We don’t just go searching for plants because it’s fun (although it is). The more time you spend outside, the more you learn to notice what surrounds you. Situational awareness is so important in this job. You have to be aware of the temperature, the wind direction, the humidity, watch where you’re stepping, read your dog’s behavior, etc. Understanding dog behavior is equally important, but teaching yourself how to pick up signals from your surroundings is the first step.
Additionally, it’s important to understand the detrimental effects that invasive species have on our environments. We’ve taken the time to research the biology of the species; where they’re found, when they flower, how long it takes them to germinate, what soil types they like, their life cycles and more; ensuring our success and efficiency.
What is one piece of equipment you never go to work without?
When in the field, a GPS! We are trying to grow a program and integrate it with existing invasive species programs in the Trail Conference. This means that we need to be diligent about collecting data. GPS location and distance tracking is essential to proving our program’s worth and supporting existing programs.
What is your dog’s favorite reward?
Fagen, the Malinois, loves to tug and Dia, the Labrador, would fetch a ball forever!
What is one fun story from the field (or with your working dog) you laugh about every time? We went to a field site once with Scotch broom plants that had to be over 6 ft tall. Dia blasted right into them and got so excited, she started jumping up and down on her hind legs like a human biting the plant as far up as she could reach!
Learn more about the New York New Jersey Trail Conference and follow them along on their sniffing adventures: