by Dwain Hebda
Somewhere along miles and miles of pipes in the Central Arkansas Water system, there’s a leak. It’s something that comes with the territory in this line of work, but not something that officials have to accept – and they don’t.
But it’s not a fancy new technological doodad or space-age sensors or even a drip-seeking robot that’s helping CAW identify and repair leaks with a single targeted dig. No, the utility’s new secret weapon is a 2-year-old Lab mix named Vessel, who in October was commissioned as the first leak detection canine in service in the United States.
“Vessel detects off the smell of chlorine,” says Doug Shackelford, CAW director of communications. “That is how she knows if it is a leak from our distribution system rather than ground water or a rain puddle. She will pass right over a puddle of water if it is not treated water with chlorine.”
“She has identified numerous leaks already; many of them known or suspected that we used to verify and to test her out. A recent example was a leak that we knew existed and sent a crew to repair. When we took Vessel to the site, she actually triggered on another location near the spot where we thought the leak was. Our crew dug Vessel’s mark instead of the expected mark and found a substantial leak with only one dig.”
The idea for a leak-sniffing hound came from CAW CEO Tad Bohannon who witnessed one while traveling in Great Britain. He brought the idea back to Central Arkansas determined to put such a dog into service here. But as it had never been done before in the States, there was really no good starting point for identifying the right animal or finding the right trainer.
Vessel would be identified by the most random of circumstances, but it wasn’t the first time Fate had intervened in the life of the pup. Vessel was a rescue, found wandering a sugar cane field in Louisiana, and saved by Tia Torres of Pit Bulls and Parolees fame. She enrolled Vessel in Arkansas Paws in Prison, a dog-training program where inmates in Arkansas’ correctional facilities train rescued and shelter dogs to make them more appealing to prospective owners.
Vessel caught the eye of former inmate and now professional dog trainer Tracy Owen, co-owner of Dogsamust, who was leading the Paws in Prison training at the Tucker Maximum Security Unit.
“You can just feel when there’s something special about a dog,” Owen says. “Vessel was amazing.”
Owen had originally earmarked Vessel as a service dog, but when her business partner Carrie Kessler happened to attend a function where Bohannon and other CAW employees were discussing the leak detection dog concept, a light went off.
“The question they had was, ‘Could we train a dog to detect water leaks?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, it’s definitely possible,’” Kessler says. “If you’re a good dog trainer and someone presents a challenge that you’re interested in, you can figure out how to do it. And I’d done scent work training just for sport, so we knew the basics and we knew the foundation, so we took on the challenge.”
Vessel underwent months of specialized training for the new role at Randall L. Williams Correctional Facility, a regimen the two trainers put together themselves. Since there was precious little information on training a dog for this specific application, they drew from other tracking scenarios, making adjustments as they went.
“The fundamentals are pretty much the same whether we’re teaching a dog to alert to drugs in a kid’s locker or contraband in a suitcase or water leaks underground,” Kessler says. “The concept and the system are pretty much the same because you imprint a scent or a target. We give meaning to that target and just build on that. It starts out very slow and simple and then we build on it.”
When the time came to test her skills, Vessel passed with flying colors. She was purchased by CAW and paired with her full-time handler Leak Detection Specialist Stephen Sullivan, formerly of CAW’s Distribution Department who has been with the utility for 12 years.
“She’s a family dog,” Owen says. “The water company had been talking to the (police) canine unit and was originally told she should be in a pen by herself, you don’t handle her, she just works. And we told them, first thing, this dog will be somebody’s pet and she’ll have a job. She’s going to be in the house. We want her to go to the lake with the family if that’s what they’re going to do.”
So far, Vessel has been impressive in her new role and her perfect record for identifying leaks has CAW thinking of expanding the program.
“Technology is amazing, and we have utilized some really unique approaches to find leaks in our system, including satellite detection,” Shackelford says. “However, as successful as some of the technological programs are, we are blown away by how good Vessel is at finding leaks. Plus, a dog like Vessel puts a positive face on the work utilities are doing every day to provide safe, dependable drinking water to their communities.”
Meanwhile, as word began to spread around the industry, the phone at Dogsamust quickly started ringing.
“In Tennessee, there’s a leak detection company that wants the next dog right now. They don’t care, what money they need to spend – they want the next one,” Owen says. “We’ve got Kentucky calling us and Texas. Someone in San Francisco has expressed interest.”
“We called the International Water Quality Conference inquiring how much it would cost if we wanted to have a booth there and be a vendor,” Kessler says. “The lady on the phone said, ‘What’s your name and what does your business provide?’ I said, ‘We train dogs to detect water leaks.’
“She said, ‘You have a product that detects water leaks?’ I said, ‘No, we train dogs to do that.’ She said, ‘I want to hear more about this. This is amazing.’”