by Kathy Eaton

It’s widely known that Labrador retrievers have a keen sense of smell that make them excellent detectors of drugs, bombs, and other illegal substances. In addition to being used on search missions to sniff out missing persons, the breed can also be trained to detect fire accelerants, agricultural products, and even bed bugs and termites.

A year ago, Don Francis, general manager of Eco-Tech Environmental Services in Portland, Oregon, hired Terra, a petite female yellow Lab trained by Puget Sound Detection Dogs in Seattle, Washington, to detect soils contaminated by decommissioned oil tanks, prevalent in some Portland neighborhoods. Smart, devoted, and hard-working, given the command, Terra’s first assignment was in Astoria, Oregon, where she detected fuel and motor oil at an airplane crash site. Field instruments will detect gas, but not necessarily diesel or motor oil. Laboratory analysis would confirm what Terra detects at a crash site.
Terra is believed to be the first dog trained to sniff out petroleum products in and around soil that once housed oil tanks either above ground or buried below the surface. Terra sits when her well-developed nose detects the scent, cuing her handler – Tony Young, a technician with Eco-Tech – that something is lurking on the property. Terra can sniff out spillage from where a tank has been removed, which is invaluable to potential buyers who become liable for clean-up if they’re not aware prior to buying residential or commercial property. According to Francis, about 50 percent of residential tanks in the area have leaks. Clean-up costs can amount to tens of thousands of dollars.

Leslie Jones, principal broker with RE/MAX Signature Properties in Portland says, “Not only has Terra found tanks, she has found oil where no tanks are, and most interesting of all she found fuel in soil that had been thought to have been previously cleaned up. Through Terra’s detection, the soil was sent for further lab [laboratory] testing and the fuel was confirmed.”

Terra was bred by a bird dog trainer in Washington, but did not instinctively retrieve ducks one at a time. Another trainer discovered that the small female Lab had an extraordinary nose. When on task in the field, Terra begins her search by scouting the property’s perimeter, working toward the source until she locates it. The source may be 60-70 feet away. She’s rewarded for her detection skills not with treats, although she can smell them, but by playing with a favorite squeaky toy her handler keeps in his pocket. Young uses the command, “Sook” (German for “search”) for Terra to start the search.

The risk of exposure to hazardous materials is very limited because when Terra identifies a “hot spot,” her exposure to it is very short term. Terra also spends days in the Eco-Tech office when weather is a factor and she can’t do field work: high winds can dilute the source and carry scent; though cooler temperatures are ideal, snow or ice can be problematic for burying scent; warmer weather means that the molecules spread faster, which also potentially limits her availability to work.

Although a metal detector can locate motor parts, studded tires buried in a yard, appliances, etc., it will not always detect underground tanks. Sometimes Young will use a six- or seven-foot probe to open airways underground to help detect the source of petroleum. Terra’s not focused on finding the tanks as much as she is identifying contaminated soil.

When Terra is suited up with her green vest and leash, she’s at work and takes her job so seriously, she’ll ignore cats, chickens, other dogs, and even squirrels. While working at one job site in search of petroleum products in contaminated soil, Terra sat in front of a family’s gas-powered lawnmower. “Although Terra is just one tool, her detection by smell is irreplaceable and it’s the only tool like it,” says Francis.

When Terra’s not working at the office or in the field, she enjoys family outings with Francis, his wife, and their eight-year-old twins. “She’s pretty special, and is not only a working dog, but the two-year-old, petite, fifty-pound yellow Lab whose been on the job almost a year, is our family pet, too,” says Francis.

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