The nose knows: Riverkeeper trains retriever to detect sewage

Riverkeeper trains retriever to detect sewage

CARA MORNINGSTAR/Sun-Gazette Susquehanna, the dog training to sniff out sewage in the Susquehanna River, has some fun playing fetch in the water recently at the Susquehanna State Park in Williamsport.

Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Carol Parenzan uses many resources to aid her in patrolling the Susquehanna River watershed, but only one has a furry body and a nose that is being trained to sniff out the presence of raw sewage in the water.

Little Susquehanna, or “Sussey” as Parenzan affectionately calls him, is 3 years old this month. He is a Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever, an unusual breed she chose for two reasons.

“There are just a handful of dogs trained to do sewage, and he’s probably the only Nova Scotia duck toller right now being trained to do that,” Parenzan said.

One reason she chose the breed is that they are water dogs. In fact, Sussey has webbed feet.

“He swims like a little fish out there. He loves water,” Parenzan said.

She also selected him because he’s an unusual breed.

“When people see him, they say, ‘Wow what is that?’ Then I go through the story,” she said.

Parenzan said it opens up a conversation and she can explain why he has that particular name and the work he does for her and the environment.

“He was selected purposely to be a story,” she said.

Duck tollers are hunting dogs, she noted, so his sense of smell is intense. Although he is her pet, Sussey also is the official conservation canine for the Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper.

“Dogs are trained to respond to a certain scent, whether it’s drugs or bed bugs, diabetes or cancer. His scent that he’s being trained to respond to is raw sewage. I actually go to the sewage treatment plant once a week and get it. Most people want to get rid of it there; I go get it and bring it home,” Parenzan said, laughing.

Although residents may like to think area waterways are free of sewage, Parenzan

cautioned that may not be the case, because there still are combined sewer overflow systems in use.

Right now, a move is underway to separate sewage and stormwater systems. In the past they have been combined, Parenzan said.

When a combined flow goes toward the sewage treatment plant, if it is under a certain level, it goes to the sewage treatment plant to get treated whether it is is wastewater or stormwater. In this system, as it’s going underground, there’s a weir and as the water is coming down it comes up to the weir and if it’s below the top of the weir it goes to the treatment plant.

A problem arises when there is a storm event and the water coming into the system spills over the weir. Then wastewater and stormwater will both go into the river.

“But, there is also the issue of illegal connections, people who don’t want to pay for wastewater treatment who will illegally redirect their wastewater into the stormwater system” through catch basins, or storm drains, she said.

“(Sussey will) be able to detect that. He’ll be able to go by those storm drains and if there’s a scent of sewage, he’ll alert me,” Parenzan said. “We’ll be able to pop manholes that should just be stormwater going through and if there’s sewage in there, we’ll be able to detect that as well.”

Once the sewage reaches the river, Sussey still will be able to sniff it out, even though the river covers a large area.

“He just needs a little bit in a big amount of water for him to actually detect it. A lot depends on which way the wind is blowing or which way the current is flowing,” she said. “It is hard to say when he is going to be successful and not successful. It just depends on the conditions.”

According to Parenzan, Sussey helps shorten the amount of time it takes to determine if there has been a leak somewhere.

“When engineering firms are out and they’re trying to figure out if there’s sewage infiltration into a stormwater system, they’re randomly collecting samples to go back to the lab to analyze, which may take weeks … By the time they get those results and come back out, the conditions could be completely different.

“When you have a detection dog, they can alert you to a high probability area and you can grab that sample,” she said, adding Sussey’s work will result in savings of time and costs.

Dogs trained to detect sewage are not common to riverkeepers; in fact, Parenzan said she only knows of one other dog with Sussey’s capabilities working with a riverkeeper.

Because of this, Sussey will not only work in the watershed with Parenzan but also will serve on a consulting team to work with engineers, municipalities and watershed associations within the local watershed and outside in other watersheds.

“He will actually be a paid service,” Parenzan said. “He will be a revenue generator for our organization. Because we are self-funded, we need to have creative ways to bring money into the organization so we can do all of the things that we do. He is part of that equation.”

In the future, Parenzan and Sussey will be on a boat on the Susquehanna, patrolling for sewage leaks.

“He will be trained to be on the boat with me as well as working the shoreline,” she said.

Sussey has been working with Silke Wittig, HeRo Canine Consulting LLC, on nose work training for a year and a half. He learned how to hunt for a tin container and received a treat or a toy as a reward to build his motivation and focus.

“It’s a work in progress,” Wittig said, adding that since Sussey is a young animal he can easily get distracted when he’s in new environments. “It takes a lot of commitment and regular practice.”

Initially, Parenzan said, the tins were filled with a treat. “Eventually, the treats came out … and the scent went in.”

The first time Sussey found the tin with the treat on the outside and the sewage inside, he curled his lip like he didn’t know what to think of the new smell, she said.

“Now when he’s training, some (tins) are paired (with the treat and the scent) and some are not paired, but either way he always gets rewarded with the food,” she said. “Eventually, none of them will be paired and he’ll just get the scent, and he’ll get rewarded with the food,” she said.

In the fall, Parenzan said, the plan is to parallel train Sussey with dogs that already do the work, which could mean a trip to Maine, Michigan or California. That requires funding, either through grants or private individuals or groups.

“I want him to parallel train with dogs that do this and do this well,” she said, “and then we can come back and continue our training.”

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