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Conservation canines rescue sea turtles

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A dog sniffs around a beach to search for turtles.
Photo courtesy of K9s 4 Conservation.

Along the Coastal Bend region of Texas, little pawprints left in the sand are leading to the protection of sea turtle nests.

K9’s 4 Conservation is an organization that aims to protect sea turtle nests with search and rescue dogs.

Christian Fritz, graduate teaching assistant, is training two of his own dogs to find and identify Kemp’s Ridley and Hawkbill nests in order to protect the endangered species.

Fritz began his work as a K9 Handler in 2013 after serving in the Air Force for eight years. He said his experience in the military ignited a love for goal-seeking. Fritz said fighting for a successful mission alongside his team is what drew him to working with search and rescue dogs.

Fritz was drawn to conservation training after learning about the endangered sea turtles in Texas. During his research, he found there to be a lack of organizations centered solely around training dogs to protect nests. Fritz took it upon himself to fight for this cause.

“I’m a student, I had no summer job,” Fritz said. “I thought this was something I could really do. Trained dogs can be up to $20,000 but I already have two and I’m willing to get this started.”

Fritz has been training dogs for five years. His first dog, Saul, is certified nationally for search and rescue. Fritz said Saul has taken quickly to conservation training, and the dog’s previous work in search and rescue provides a strong foundation.

His second dog, Dasha, is originally from Bosnia. She was initially trained as a drug detection dog for a police force in Texas. Fritz adopted her after the company declared her a soft dog. Soft dogs are scent-trained dogs who react poorly to harsh correction. When a trainer utilizes aggressive correction, the dogs no longer seek out the correct scent in fear of punishment.

Fritz has individualized training methods for his two dogs. The dogs take turns searching and rescuing.

Fritz spent a month training Saul and Dasha to detect sea turtle nests. Their duty is to pick up the scent of the nest and mark the exact location. Fritz will then report the nest to the sea turtle conservation team. The area will be flagged, and the eggs will be protected until the baby sea turtles hatch and make the journey to their lives at sea.

Fritz said dogs provide a much more efficient detection of nests than the sand probes, which are used by conservation teams. Fritz’s dogs are able to move quickly and detect multiple nests using scent alone.

“The dogs can find nests in a matter of minutes,” Fritz said. “My goal is to have them work on those windy, rainy days when humans have a harder time finding nests with sand probes.”

Fritz is currently working toward his Ph.D. in criminal justice at Texas State and taught a Comparative Criminal Justice class this past spring.

Makayla Castille, criminal justice senior, said she heard Fritz briefly mention K9’s 4 Conservation during class and was intrigued.

Castille got in contact with Fritz and is now a part of the organization. Her sorority, Lambda Xi Delta, works alongside K9’s 4 Conservation by fundraising, training dogs and running social media management.

“Christian and I have been talking and I even plan on having my own conservation dog in the coming year,” Castille said.

Marisa Campbell, advertising senior, is a member of Lambda Xi Delta. She said K9’s 4 Conservation is planning to train more rescue dogs in the future. The organization helps sea turtle conservation in a way that hasn’t been widely utilized before.

“We’re essentially helping two organizations as well as the health of the oceans,” Campbell said.

The dogs will train during the year in San Marcos and deploy to Corpus Christi in May 2019 during the nesting season.

K9’s 4 Conservation is currently a nonprofit. Fritz said the organization accepts volunteers and donations in any form. Shirts with the logo are available on their website as well.

Fritz, Saul and Dasha are ready to sniff out turtles no matter what the weather. Their hard work will pay off as they set out on a mission to save sea turtles across the coastline.

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