Tucked into his home office, Jim Peters sits with one dog at his feet and two others close by. What started as a simple love for dogs turned into an opportunity to make a career working with them.
One year ago, the Iowa native partnered with a friend to train dogs to find whatever their handlers might be seeking: missing people, dead bodies, specific types of amphibians, and even weeds. German shepherd Rocky is on search-and-rescue and cadaver duty while the red heeler mix Jojo and border collie-blue heeler mix Charlie are on conservation duty, finding endangered turtles and invasive weed species.
“We look for dogs from a working breed category,” he says. “We need them to be familiar with working with people and to be trainable.”
His dogs aren't the high-dollar purebreds you might expect. Instead, they're typically mixed breeds that he's adopted after seeing how they performed on simple tests assessing their trainability.
Charlie, for example, was one of a full litter of puppies. Peters brought toys for the dogs to see which one was the most curious and responded the best to challenges. He let the dogs see the toy and hid it in various spots near the dogs to see which one had the best searching instincts. Charlie stood out from his littermates when he found the ball in a closed trash can.
In the initial training stages, he uses toys to get dogs started using their noses. He simply tosses the toy into tall grass and other tricky spots to get the dogs to sniff out their location. From there, he works up, eventually training them on specific scents such as endangered turtles, weeds or missing people.
“Now I’ve got a county conservation group lined up to find weeds,” he says. “Dogs can find the much smaller weeds before they pollinate and spread.” In some cases, the dogs can even detect weeds prior to emergence.
They’re starting in Iowa with lespedeza weeds and training with more as counties request it. Peters plans to focus on two or three different weed types this year and might add more in 2017. Currently, the dogs are finding weeds for conservation purposes, but he can see a place for it in production agriculture. “In pastures especially, I think they’ll be great at finding weeds,” he says.
Peters notes that dogs are capable of more than many people realize, from detecting explosives, drugs, and organic materials at airports and to sensing signs of seizures or cancer in humans. “We don’t talk about what are the limitations," the dog trainer says. "We talk about the opportunities.”
What if you could have a farm dog who was trained to identify invasive weeds on your farm or ranch? Let us know what you think in the comments.