When Poppy hits the beach, she turns her discerning nose to sniffing out oil.
The English springer spaniel, one of several oil-detecting canines in the country, can lead her trainer and handler, Paul Bunker, to oil more quickly and efficiently than any team of humans could, even finding oil underground.
But Poppy hasn’t been taught the difference between the fresh oils of an oil spill and naturally occurring weathered oil in the form of tar balls. That’s where Bin comes in.
Bin, a German shorthaired pointer, was trained this spring to detect crude oil specifically.
“That’s the only dog in the world that’s trained to do this job,” Bunker said.
With funding from the Texas General Land Office, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi’s Center for Coastal Studies is working to support Bin and to train members of the public to house and handle oil detection dogs to serve the Texas coast.
Bunker owns Chiron K9, a canine consultancy company in San Antonio. He began discussing how dogs might be used to detect oil with oil spill expert Ed Owens years ago. With funding from the American Petroleum Institute, they showed that dogs can detect oil in the field.
Bunker’s dogs have been on projects across the country and in Canada. But in Texas, the state general land office had a concern.
“One of the concerns of the TGLO was that if we brought an oil spill response dog after an incident, because there’s so much natural oil on the beach, we’d spend all day just responding to stuff that already existed instead of the actual fresh oil,” Bunker said.
The current study, funded by the GLO and conducted in partnership with A&M-Corpus Christi, focuses on training specialized dogs.
It was Bunker who brought the project idea to the university after conversing with the state office, Center for Coastal Studies research specialist Aaron Baxter said.
The state is providing $270,000 over the course of two years. Bunker and Texas Tech University’s canine olfaction research and education lab, where the dogs receive initial detection training, are subcontractors in the project.
Another dog, Luna, will be joining the team this summer. She will also be trained to ignore tar balls and focus on crude oil. The research team will be looking for a local volunteer handler to adopt Luna and support the GLO and A&M-Corpus Christi project.
A&M-Corpus Christi grad student Erin Mueller is part of the project as well, helping with beach surveys. Tuesday morning, the team conducted a survey at Mustang Island.
During a survey, the human team profiles a stretch of shoreline observing oil and tar balls. Then, the dogs take a turn at looking for oil. The dogs do much better, Mueller said.
“They’re professionals,” Mueller said.
Without the assistance of a dog, finding oil on the beach would entail a long line of about 20 people walking down the beach and stopping every 30 feet to dig a hole and look for oil, Bunker said.
“It saves a lot of time and effort and obviously money,” Bunker said. “It’s a lot more effective that dogs do this job.”
Bin’s handler is Mike Price. Price, who lives in Matagorda County, got involved after seeing an email from the land office looking for handlers.
Price spent time learning from Bunker about how to handle Bin.
On the beach, the dogs walk in front of their handlers, pacing back and forth with the wind at their backs. Bin is trained using canisters of fresh oil.
“When he picks it up, this dog goes on point, big time,” Price said. “Then he’s rewarded. He gets his ball. That’s his reward. He loves it.”
For Poppy and Bin, both of whom are high-energy dogs, oil detection is like a fun game, Bunker said.
“Her ball is her life,” Bunker said of Poppy.
Outside of his oil detection duties, Bin is an enthusiastic pet who loves walks, Price said.
“He’s a real lovable dog,” Price said. “He loves somebody to pet him and be nice to him.”
But if there’s ever an oil spill, Bin will be ready to go to work.
“We’ll come,” Price said.
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