It’s a cold, foggy morning high in the Pyrenees, the well-known mountain chain in southwestern Europe that forms a formidable wall between France and Spain. The night brought rain, making the steep terrain treacherously slick. Heath Smith, lead trainer with CK9, struggles to keep up with his teammate Chester, a bouncing, blond, 10 year-old lab cross. Chester is sure-footed, bounding, lively in the cool temps and the damp air. Smith takes one step forward, slides two back, and his lungs are aching for more oxygen in the thin air. Each time he climbs higher, he sees Chester sitting, waiting patiently. Each time he arrives, Chester hops up and scampers effortlessly over another rise, always stopping to be certain his partner is with him. Smith watches him closely while catching his breath, fully trusting that his teammate, a highly experienced veteran CK9, knows exactly what he is doing.

When Chester finally slows down, allowing Smith to catch up, he whips around and sits next to a fresh, steaming scat. Not just any scat: Ursus arctos, grizzly bear, the same species found in North America. A 1995 reintroduction program brought the species to the area from Slovenia and today less than 20 are known to survive. Conservationists want to understand more about the remaining population and enlisted the help of CK9 team Smith and Chester. The small, but information-rich piece of data they just located will unlock important clues for scientists studying this tiny population.  

With Smith’s deep knowledge of the skills and experiences of his canine teammate, they were able to locate a fresh grizzly bear scat in densely vegetated, steep terrain that extends 270 miles, from the Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean Sea, and 11,168 ft high. Finding the proverbial needle in a haystack with such keen expertise is only possible through meticulous cultivation of trust and communication between dog and handler.

We work hard to foster this relationship among all teams. We encourage our dogs to think independently, to freely communicate with us and, as handlers, it is our job to understand what they are telling us. This way, we become a strong team, working together to solve some of the most pressing ecological problems around the globe.