Every Dog Has Their Day:
America’s First Water Leak
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 res
cue 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
Tapping into Vessel’s Potential
CAW’s most effective tool in the fight against unaccounted water was
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.
Tracy Owen now runs 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
talks about dogs is not unlike the way an empathetic teacher talks
about their students. She uses words like “special” and “unique”
to describe Vessel and her peers; she fosters 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, 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, Tracy asked if she could undergo a two-week service
During this time, Vessel was working with inmates from the Randall L.
Williams unit when Tracy 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.
Tracy wasn't deterred. The trainer believed that Vessel’s
love of learning and her ball drive would find her a place to help. She
knew there was still something special in store for Vessel.
Getting Vessel’s Feet Wet
Shortly after unlocking her ball drive and losing the prospect of helping
someone with disabilities, Vessel’s destiny was realized when CAW
came calling. Tracy originally didn’t like the name Vessel,
but when this opportunity came up, she 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 Tracy if she could train a dog to detect water leaks. She
responded with an emphatic, “sure”.
Tracy 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, Tracy 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 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.
Tracy 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 described this stage of the training
as short. She would 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 pro
gram, 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.
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 miss -identification a “handler’s error”.
A Model Employee
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.
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
Vessel was initially wary to leave Tracy, so trying to bond
was initially met with some resistance. Each time Vessel smelled her
trainer, 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.
Water utilities’ interest in leak-detection dogs has risen since last year, when it was reported that Central Arkansas Water (CAW) in Little Rock had hired a canine to help sniff out pipe breaks. Some officials in the water sector may be curious about what it takes to find and train such a helpful asset, and trainers Tracy Owen is more than happy to share that information. She runs an organization called Dogsamust, which now has a division called On the Nose Water Leak Detection Dogs dedicated especially to training canine water workers. Tracy has worked with rescue dogs for over 20 years and has developed the skills to assess and train dogs that could be useful for various services. Since training Vessel — CAW’s leak detection dog — the idea of employing canines for leak-detection has gained popularity, and she has been busy training numerous others.
Finding the right dog for a job in the water sector isn’t a task to be taken lightly. It takes research, and it takes time. “It’s very important that these dogs have good social skills and have absolutely no fear of new situations, new people or other dogs,” says Tracy. Another advantage she found with Vessel is that she had no prey drive and therefore was not distracted by such things that may usually take the focus of a normal dog. Training around distractions such as children or other dogs prepare them for anything they might encounter in the field when hunting down waterline leaks.📷 Vessel, North America's first water leak-detection dog.“She has had probably about triple the amount of public access hours that are required,” says Tracy, when talking about Vessel. “In order to have public access certification, they need to be okay in all situations. ”With years of experience training canines for other services such as hearing loss assistance, Tracy says that the characteristics needed for a good leak-detection dog are similar, yet different. “This requires more drive,” she says. “For our leak-detection dogs, it’s all a game. ”When they discovered Vessel, it was obvious she had very high ball drive and loved to play. This trait correlates well to leak-detection, as finding the water is all a part of the game. When a dog is out on a job, they are just out playing and doing what they love. Viable dogs have come from all over for the trainers. Vessel, for instance, was a rescue dog and identified for advanced training because of her intellect and energetic drive. Since then, Tracy has found many more shelter and rescue dogs that fit the profile, as well as dogs from breeders. Tracy also says there is an advantage to assessing young adult dogs for this purpose because they are able to measure their sociability and test them on more advanced skills that may not have developed yet in young puppies.
The most crucial thing for leak detection is finding a trainer who knows what to look for in a dog. “We want a dog with high drive, but a lot of times those dogs will have a short fuse,” says Tracy. “We want a dog that has a lot of drive and tolerance.”The ability to pick out those characteristics in a dog and take advantage of other individual traits comes from experience in training. It is also important that trainers focus on positive training. “Positive reinforcement makes for a really happy dog that is very friendly in the public,” says Tracy. Another unexpected benefit for utilities, according to Tracy, is that they’re great for public relations and education. Officials say the public is encouraged when they see dogs working with their local utilities to keep drinking water safe.Related: Find Your Distribution Flaws and Get Water Loss Under Control Tracy also discussed that how the dogs are kept and treated outside of the work environment is very important. She encourages separation of work and home life. “When the dog is off duty, she wants that dog to be treated as a family pet,” Tracy says. “I find that is one of the things that really help a dog thrive mentally. “My goal is to not just train a dog to do a job, but I want that dog to last for a very long time, and part of that is making sure that the dog is not just treated like a piece of equipment.” For more information about Tracy Owen, and On the Nose training, visit dogsamust.com.
I, Tracy Owen & as the dog trainer for On The Nose Water Leak Detection Dogs will train the dog to differentiate between fresh and chlorinated water. Will also ensure the dog trained in public access. Annually I will need to retest and verify this skill. I will train a handler that will be responsible for the dog and it's ongoing training. Included in training:
I am an active partner with the Arkansas Paws in Prison program (PIP), a partnership with the Arkansas Department of Corrections and with Last Chance Arkansas Rescue (non-profit organization ).
Central Arkansas Water (CAW) has two new employees.
One has the job title of leak detection specialist, not an uncommon position at a water utility. The other, however, holds a unique spot on an organizational chart: canine handler. Vessel and Stephen Sullivan are the new hires, part of CAW chief executive officer Tad Bohannon’s determination to lower their unaccounted water usage.
Vessel’s resume included a recommendation from the Arkansas Department of Corrections’ Paws in Prison program. At CAW, she underwent training, passed her tests, and found a new home along with a new best friend in Sullivan (who had been a foreman at CAW before moving into the new position).
Vessel sniffs for chlorine to determine if a puddle on the ground is groundwater or a leak in the distribution system. If it’s a leak, Vessel barks to alert Sullivan.
CAW’s unaccounted water has been approximately 11 percent. Bohannan has a goal to reduce that to 5 percent, well below the industry standard of 9 percent. As the largest water supplier in the state, serving more than 450,000 residents in seven counties, CAW is drawing attention from other utilities for their innovative approach. Others may follow Vessel on social media at CAWdetectivedog.
Civil + Structural Engineer Magazine interviewed my best friend Stephen Sullivan and former trainers Dogsamust Dog Training & Boarding a few weeks ago. Watch for the coming video and article. 📇
Here Stephen is talking about how we built our bond, but I was pretty attached to my trainer Tracy, too!
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