K-9s join DNR efforts to locate zebra mussels

DNR conservations officer Travis Muyres with Laina, a Belgian Malinois. (submitted photos)

An up-close look at zebra mussels.

Beginning on the May 11 state fishing opener, DNR conservation officers started using specially trained dogs to detect zebra mussels on boats and trailers.

They have joined the state’s more than 130 human watercraft inspectors located at lakes and rivers throughout the state.

Minnesota is the second state to use K-9s to sniff out zebra mussels.

Over the winter, DNR conservation officers Todd Kanieski and Travis Muyres traveled to California to learn about the country’s first successful program using K-9s to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species.

After returning from California the search was on to find dogs with the right qualities to train to become zebra mussel hunters.

“We needed to find dogs that have a high search and reward drive and that are stable in new environments,” Muyres said.

Muyres said he found his mussel dog Laina, a Belgian Malinois at a domestic breeder. She was purchased for $2,500, which was donated by the North Country Bowhunters.

The other two were a bit harder to find.

“We looked at hundreds of dogs,” Muyres said. “We wouldn’t have been able to find three. Finding two with the right traits was difficult enough.”

Finally, Muyres said they found two eager and well-suited Labrador retrievers named Brady and Digger, dogs provided by an animal shelter and rescue organization.

Muyres personally trained all three dogs over the course of five weeks. At first he taught them to sniff out and signal venison for a few weeks before teaching them to do the same with zebra mussels.

The dogs can locate zebra mussels by scent (adult specimens are usually the size of a fingernail) five to 15 times faster than a human can spot them. They are even able to find juvenile mussels and larvae that are smaller and even more difficult to spot.

‘Show me!’

Muyres said the dogs are trained to respond to a “show me” command. If they find zebra mussels the dogs signal their handlers by putting their noses next to where they smell the odor. The dogs are then rewarded with a toy, such as a ball, or a treat.

According to a February 2013 DNR report more than 100 lakes and rivers in the state have zebra mussel infestations.

There are four lakes with the invasive species in Ramsey County: Lake Charley, Pleasant Lake, Sucker Lake and Lake Vadnais.

Muyres said the zebra mussels used to train the three K-9s were taken from Lake Vadnais “by the truckload.”

Every year zebra mussels, milfoil and other invasive aquatic species are found in more and more lakes around Minnesota. It is impossible for DNR water inspectors and a few K-9 teams to patrol every body of water in the state, but part of the job is to raise awareness of the problem and to get boaters to take precautions that will help reduce the spread of aquatic invasive species.

Ultimately the responsibility of preventing the spread of aquatic invasive species falls on boaters.

“The use of K-9s is a progressive enforcement tool that will complement and support our invasive species prevention efforts,” Jim Conrad, DNR enforcement director said in a press statement. “However, they should not overshadow the fact that preventing the spread of AIS [aquatic invasive species] is still everyone’s personal responsibility.”

State law requires boaters to remove any visible aquatic plants, zebra mussels and any other prohibited species from boats and trailers. The law also requires boaters to drain any lake water from watercraft equipment and to remove the drain plug before transporting a boat on public roads.

Joshua Nielsen can be reached at  jnielsen@lillienews.com or 651-748-7824.

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