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Every Dog has their Day: America’s First Water Leak Detection Dog

Every Dog has their Day: America’s First Water Leak Detection Dog

By Luke Carothers

Central Arkansas Water (CAW) has taken a lot of steps to reduce their unaccounted water rates.  They’ve tried satellite detection and manual searching, but recently they added a new tool that will help them lower their unaccounted water rate from 11-12 percent below the American Water Works Association’s “gold standard” of 9 percent to the low rate of 5 percent.  In terms of water detection in the United States, this tool is one of a kind.

Enter Vessel, an adorable black lab mix.  She isn’t just a pet-able face, either.  Vessel is as hard a worker as they come, and she is no stranger to gainful employment.  Prior to undergoing training as a water leak detection dog, Vessel was a member of Arkansas Paws in Prison, where she worked with inmates who were given the opportunity to train rescue dogs that would otherwise have no place to go.  Vessel was special, however, and when CAW went looking for a suitable dog for the task, trainers immediately singled her out as the best candidate.  Afterwards, Vessel underwent specialized training to detect leaks.

The process seems simple.  Handlers bring Vessel to an area where they hope to detect either surfacing or non-surfacing leaks in their water distribution system and let her go.  Her task is straight-forward: detect any treated water leaks in the area.  When Vessel finds a suspected leak, she immediately goes to that spot and lays down, looking at her handler.  The handler asks Vessel to confirm the leak to which she looks at the handler, barks, and lies back down.  What happens if none of the water leaking from the distribution system reaches the surface?

This is where Vessel sets herself apart from her human coworkers.  She uses her superb canine senses to smell chlorine as it is expelled from the treated water, meaning that even water underground can’t escape Vessel’s nose.

Tapping into Vessel’s Potential

Vessel gets to work quickly after being given the command to search for a water leak.

forged in the most unlikely of places.  Vessel is a graduate of the Arkansas Paws in Prison program.  Paws in Prison is a unique opportunity where inmates are selected to become trainers of rescue dogs.  The program not only provides an opportunity for prisoners to build skills that can be used to transition to a life outside of prison, but it also trains remarkably talented dogs.  On top of that, the program also saves these dogs from being euthanized.

Tracy Owen is a professional dog trainer, and she was one of the very first Paws in Prison trainers.  She has been training dogs for about 17 years, although she joined Paws in Prison when it started around 2011.  Owen was lucky enough to work with the program in a few different places, having spent time working with dogs in three different units.  When she was paroled, Tracy began working with Carrie Kessler.

Carrie Kessler has over 20 years of experience being a professional dog trainer.  In her current role working with Paws in Prison, she supervises the training in two different units: The Maximum-Security unit and the Tucker unit.  This is where she found Vessel.

Tracy Owen and Carrie Kessler now run On the Nose, a dog training company that specializes in leak detection, although there is a lot of room to grow in terms of what these dogs can do. The way Tracy and Carrie talk about dogs is not unlike the way an empathetic teacher talks about their students.  The pair use words like “special” and “unique” to describe Vessel and her peers; they foster the idea that each dog is different and suited to their own tasks.  When it comes to Vessel, her trainers believe she is perfectly suited to her job.

Tracy specializes in service dogs, and when she first worked with Vessel the right qualities seemed to shine through immediately. Vessel has just the right temperament for the job and feels an intense desire to please.  Tracy recalls talking to Carrie about Vessel, but they had to wait until the seven-week training period was over.  As soon as it was, Tracy immediately reached out to see if Vessel was adopted, and when she wasn’t, the pair asked if she could undergo a two-week service training period.

During this time, Vessel was working with inmates from the Randall L. Williams unit when Carrie realized that Vessel was developing a strong ball drive.  She describes this moment as “full throttle” believing her drive was unlocked.  This means Vessel wasn’t suited to work with someone who has disabilities because she just had too much drive.  Carrie and Tracy weren’t deterred.  The trainers believed that Vessel’s love of learning and her ball drive would find her a place to help.  They knew there was still something special in store for Vessel.

Getting Vessel’s Feet Wet

Vessel’s reward for a successful demonstration is a game of fetch with handler Stephen Sullivan.

Shortly after unlocking her ball drive and losing the prospect of helping someone with disabilities, Vessel’s destiny was realized when CAW came calling.  Carrie and Tracy originally didn’t like the name Vessel, but when this opportunity came up, they knew the name was the right fit.  Vessel’s name, her demeanor, her drive, and her desire to please all came together at the perfect time.

CAW wanted to start from the ground up.  The company asked Carrie and Tracy if they could train a dog to detect water leaks.  The pair responded with an emphatic, “sure”.

Carrie admits she had little professional experience in scent detection.  Her only experience, as she puts it, was “playing around with some of [her] training dogs.”  However, Carrie was confident that she knew the fundamentals, and she was confident in Vessel’s ability to learn and her drive to please others.

Tracy knew Vessel would be the perfect candidate for this job because she is ball-driven rather than food-driven.  This means Vessel views rewards as completing a task and getting to go again.  In other words, because Vessel wants to please her handler, she will complete the task as quick as possible.  Once Tracy and Carrie got Vessel to focus on the smell of CAW’s water, her own nature will allow her to continuously hone her skills as long as she is allowed to do her job.

Although Vessel’s training is ongoing, the initial process takes around six months (as well as the previous service and handler training).  Most of the time during this training period is spent changing the scenario and making the dog work in different environments.  For a worker like Vessel, this is extremely important.  Vessel is responsible for detecting water leaks that occur in different environments, and it is extremely important that she can stay on task.

Carrie believes one of the keys for training a detection dog like Vessel is to start with short training sessions that are set up for success.  The sessions must be short because, as a younger animal in training, the dogs don’t have the longest attention span.  As the training continues, however, the sessions increase in duration and the tasks become harder.

Vessel’s training began in this way with short sessions that took place mostly indoors.  Tracy and Carrie describe this stage of the training as short.  The trainers ask the dog to find a smell that is just a short distance away with little else to distract them.  As the dogs complete these shorter tasks, they then begin to move outside and are given more and more distractions.

Vessel is also different from other service animals in that she has public access training.  This training adds a few extra months onto the program, but it offers a few key benefits.  For example, Vessel is able to interact with the public for demonstrations, and she can fly on planes with her handlers.  This training also allows Vessel to give educational demonstrations to children.   Vessel’s public access training allows her to travel more widely and spread the message about what she is doing, which was one of the main goals when CAW began this project.

A Flood of Positive Results

Vessel only began working at CAW in early November 2019, but her handler, Stephen Sullivan, has a lot more experience when it comes to working with treated water.  Stephen has worked for Central Arkansas Water for the last 13 years as a foreman in the construction sector, but his job changed dramatically last October when he was asked to work with Vessel.  However, for Sullivan, the difference between laying pipe every day and working with Vessel is a huge one, but it is definitely a good thing.

Vessel was initially wary to leave Tracy and Carrie, so trying to bond was initially met with some resistance.  Each time Vessel smelled her trainers, she would become distracted and try to search the facility for them.  However, Vessel soon learned to trust Stephen and the two have developed a strong working relationship.  Since Vessel spends her time outside work living with Stephen as a pet, this bond is only set to grow even stronger.  Stephen describes the strength of this relationship along the lines of trust; he believes that the more Vessel trusts him, the better she is able to do her job.

This new working relationship took work from both sides.  On one hand, Vessel can be a lot to handle while she’s on the job.  Vessel’s ball drive and high energy give her an incredibly high work rate, which can be difficult to manage in suburban and urban environments.  Vessel’s assignments often require her to work within neighborhoods where there are more distractions such as traffic and curious pedestrians.  Stephen has learned early into his career working with Vessel that sometimes she needs an extra set of eyes to keep her out of harm’s way.

The unique nature of Vessel’s job means that she works in quite the variety of environments.  However, once Vessel puts her work vest on, there is nothing that can distract her.  According to Stephen, Vessel’s identification record is nearly immaculate.  In fact, since Vessel was hired in the Fall, she has positively identified over 80 leaks, both above and below ground.  Not only is this a prodigious amount of production, it is also efficient.  During that time, Vessel only misidentified one CAW leak, and, even then, Stephen refuses to blame Vessel calling the one misidentification a “handler’s error”.

A Model Employee

Vessel’s partner in training Gauge smells treats in trainer Tracy Owen’s pocket.

To be clear, Vessel’s story is great, and she is a cute pet, but that does not lessen the impact she is having with her work.  Prior to Vessel’s arrival, the process of identifying surface water as a treated water leak involved not only identifying the leak but also sending that water into the lab is make certain it is CAW water.  Because Vessel is only trained to identify water specifically treated at one of the CAW facilities, the need to test it diminishes significantly.

Vessel’s ability to detect water underground also saves CAW time and money when it comes to digging in the ground.  Stephen Sullivan notes a particular case when someone asked them to check for a leak at the base of the hill because water was running out.

Vessel was able to identify the leak closer to the top of the hill which saved what likely would have been 60 feet of digging into a residential hill.  This non-invasive way of identifying crucial breaks in water lines could prove useful in other urban or residential settings.

On top of saving time and money for CAW, Vessel is also a public relations star.  Because Vessel has public access training, she is able to travel far and wide.  According to CAW, this training is a result of the desire to spread this idea to other areas of the United States.

As other utility companies look for ways to reduce their unused water rate, they will look at Vessel as a shining beacon of using resources in a new way.  In an industry that often looks towards technology to solve the latest issues, this is an opportunity to reassess how we can use the tools around us to solve the problems we face.

To learn more about Vessel and see her in action watch this video!

On the Nose Water Leak Detection Dogs

Founded by Tracy Owen and Carrie Kessler

Trained the United States’ first and second water leak detection dogs

Works closely with Arkansas Paws in Prison to not only lower the number of shelter dogs euthanized, but also in helping inmates gain valuable skills that can be transferred to life outside of incarceration

Seeking to provide former inmates stable work and life skills once they are paroled by working to train the dogs

For more information visit their website or email Tracy at dogsamust@icloud.com.

Follow Vessel on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/CAWDetectiveDog/.

Luke Carothers is the Editor for Civil + Structural Engineer Media. If you want us to cover your project or want to feature your own article, he can be reached at lcarothers@zweiggroup.com.

Copy of C+S May 2020 Vol. 6 Issue 5 (web)