Meet Ruger, a three-year-old Labrador Retriever/German Shepherd mix and the first anti-poaching dog in Zambia. Ruger is responsible for finding bush meat, rhino horns, elephant ivory, wildlife guns, ammunition, and contraband. The dog lives next to South Luangwa National Park where animals are being poached and trafficked.
At first, Ruger would snap and even bite people. According to Megan Parker, who is the director of research at Working Dogs for Conservation in Montana, Ruger was not a friendly dog to approach. In fact, Parker experienced a problem getting Ruger to the veterinarian because the dog was not comfortable with confined spaces. Regardless, Parker did not lose hope.
According to Pete Coppolillo, who is the executive director of Working Dogs for Conservation (WD4C), Parker received enormous pressure from her colleagues to decide if Ruger was fit for training. Coppolillo added that they have a forever home for dogs that do not work out, and everyone wondered if Parker should start finding a home for Ruger since the dog was losing his sight.
However, Ruger’s drive convinced Parker to continue training him. Eventually, Parker paired Ruger with the scouts of a Zambian law enforcement unit referred to as “Delta Team.” The unit is operated by the Zambia Wildlife Authority and the South Luangwa Conservation Society. The scouts were skeptical since they had minimal interaction with dogs.
Ruger accompanied the scouts on a mission where roadblocks had been erected to search cars and trucks that might be carrying illegal goods. As the vehicles passed, Ruger sat and stared at one of the cars. Even though the car contained a number of luggage, the scouts searched and did not find anything. However, Ruger kept staring at one particular luggage. Inside the luggage was a matchbox wrapped in a bag that had a primer cap, which lights gunpowder in illegal muzzleloaders that are used for poaching. From that day, the scouts learned to look at Ruger as one of their colleagues.
Coppolillo said, “At that moment, everyone believed that Ruger knew what he was doing,”
According to Coppolillo, Ruger has been working since September 2014, and he has been responsible for several arrests, proving wrong those who doubted his detection skills.
Despite the fact that Ruger is going blind, his skills have sharpened, according to Coppolillo. Ruger is working with other younger dogs which easily get distracted, but Ruger remains focused despite the numerous distractions. It seems his lack of eyesight works in his favor since he entirely (almost) focuses on his sense of smell.
Ruger is not rewarded with food, but through playing tug-of-war with his favorite chew toy. Since the work he does is dangerous, he also gets days off during the week.
According to Coppolillo, “Good dog selection is absolutely essential.” Coppolillo adds that village dogs lack the drive to perform the kind of work done by Ruger. He added that even though there are a handful of reputable kennels in Africa, they mostly sell military and security dogs, which are not well socialized to be conservation dogs. To date, Ruger has put 150 poachers out of business.
Parker has emphasized that Ruger is able to perform his duties well because he is a “bad” dog. Parker only looks for hard-to-handle dogs when she is scouring animal shelters for the next dog to train. According to her, “Bad dogs have an overwhelming desire to bring you things,” she adds that “dogs love telling you what they know. They have an inability to quit.”
It’s that inability to quit that drew Parker to Ruger. Her argument was that “bad dogs” cannot make great pets, their personalities can makes them great for conservation work.