Dog is last line of defense against Washington’s multimillion dollar problem

The last line of defense between Washington and a multimillion dollar tab could be a cute, cuddly pup adorably named “Puddles.”

Puddles, a mutt per her handler, isn’t your normal dog. She was found in a shelter, but noticed for her keen sense of smell and her desire to play. Her natural smelling abilities paired with months of training turned her into a unique type of dog – with an $11,000 price tag.

As Sgt. Pam Taylor told KIRO 7 News, Puddles is capable of smelling what the eye can’t see and while working for the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, that means zebra mussels – also known as quagga mussels.

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“We want to keep them out,” said Capt. Eric Anderson. “If they established in the Columbia River basin, they would affect every single Washingtonian.”

That warning may sound like hyperbole, but it’s not. Zebra mussels have spread across most of the United States wreaking havoc everywhere they pop up. They aren’t edible like some types of mussels found in the Pacific Northwest, in fact, they’re tiny – no larger than a fingernail. What makes zebra mussels so unbearable is their ability to spread quickly, forming a crusty mess that can do everything from damage hyrdroelectric dams to boat motors.

Puddles helps by sniffing out the mussels. In fact, she can smell mussels when they’re so small they’d be only visible under a microscope.

According to Taylor, Puddles received several weeks worth of training after she was designated as a potential “spotter” of the infamous zebra mussel. Taylor was also given training on how to interact with Puddles so that the duo could identify the invasive species on the job.

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It may seem like a low-tech solution, but it’s fast – and that matters. Last year alone, the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, or WDFW, checked more than 32,000 boats along roads in Washington. They spotted, and stopped, 18 boats from entering Washington waterways with zebra mussels on them.

The concern, of course, is that there’s a shoestring budget. The aquatic species program hasn’t seen a raise in their budget since 2007. Puddles, for instance, was only able to be purchased thanks to federal grants.

Workers will point out that states including Oregon spend $1 million for similar programs to stop invasive species from entering their region. In Washington, they spend less – and WDFW leaders are quick to point out that if something like zebra mussel were to gain a foothold in our state, it could lead to an economic impact that would far outweigh what’s being spent in prevention. That’s why Puddles – though a cute dog – has a serious job.

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Zebra mussels can spread quickly, adding multiple layers onto what they attach to. Taylor described it like spray foam from a can. They can clog everything from water intakes at water plants, hydroelectric dams and salmon bypasses.

“They could essentially turn a salmon bypass into a killing machine,” said Anderson, one of the few people -- along with Taylor and Puddles -- tasked with stopping the zebra mussel from entering the state.

In the greater picture, Puddles may seem like a gimmick. In a way, they sort of hope she becomes a mascot – or a reminder of what’s at stake. On the ground, she truly can speed up work. Inspections that take several minutes, could be cut down to 30-45 seconds. That said, she’s one dog – and the state is only covering a few locations. Currently, there are only dedicated checkpoints in two places in all of Washington state: one on I-90 near Spokane, the other on Highway 395 near the Tri-Cities region.

“I can’t be in two places at once,” Taylor said. “I’d love to have more dogs. I have people willing to take them – I just don’t have the money to get them.”

That means awareness will have to fill the gaps unless money is dedicated.

Governor Jay Inslee dubbed Monday through Friday as “Invasive Species Awareness” week. Puddles is fighting just a portion of the battle. Zebra mussels haven’t made it into the state permanently, but there’s more than 700 invasive species that have already taken root in Washington state. That includes everything from plants, to wildlife.

The public can be part of the fight too. A phone app designed in 2011 was updated in the past year, and it allows the public to report potential issues they find anywhere from their backyard, to hiking trails and the wilderness. You can learn more about the app, in the Apple app store and Google Play.