Detector dogs are learning how to sniff out pipeline leaks in a training program that pairs Indigenous people with dogs to become valuable partners in pipeline monitoring and spill response. Davis Cunningham and Tyler Haineault, along with their dogs Baby and Olive, are two of 60 who are taking part in this Pipeline Monitoring program.

"We are creating innovative occupations for inclusion in the environmental services sector. This has always been the mainstay of InnoTech Alberta's partnership with the Aboriginal Environmental Services Network - we create and pilot new training programs for Indigenous learners and hand the programs off to a training institution," said Shauna-Lee Chai, Researcher and Project Lead, InnoTech Alberta, an Alberta Innovates' wholly owned subsidiary.

The handlers and dogs have only been together for a couple of weeks. Within this short period, Davis and Tyler are impressed with how well their dogs have taken to their training and how well they fit into their families.

"Baby is very smart. On the fourth day of training she already knows when it's time to work and how to pick up on the scent," said Cunningham.

Their training aims to provide Indigenous communities better pipeline leak detection. Handler-dog teams can achieve improved response times plus employment opportunities for local communities and increase environmental protection.

"The work that we're doing will help save the environment of Indigenous land and other land throughout Alberta plus it'll save oil companies money," said Cunningham.

Davis and Tyler started training by watching a demonstration of how detector dogs work at a pipeline site in Slave Lake. It gave them a better understanding of what to look for before working with their dogs.

"It all made sense to me and came together there," said Haineault.

Ron Mistafa, of Detector Dog Services International, has 30 years of experience training handlers and dogs. He says Davis and Tyler have all the attributes to be good handlers and are patient with their dogs.

"We don't do this overnight. Davis and Tyler have made a 150 per cent climb with Baby and Olive on day three. It says a lot about their ability and the personality of the dogs," said Mistafa.

Davis is confident that he and Baby will make a strong team.

"There's a lot to learn but it's coming along great - it'll come."

Both have experience working in the oil and gas sector. Tyler grew up with pipelines on the Chipewyan Prairie First Nation, a Densolin community located in northeastern Alberta.

"This training means a lot to me. To get into this field of work where I work outdoors while protecting my ancestors' traditional land," said Haineault.

Davis and Tyler have received a lot of support from the leadership in their community to make a difference. This training gives them a way to provide income for their families. It also helps to give their children the same opportunities they had to grow up: living off the land just as their ancestors have for generations before them.

"This is what we really need: Indigenous inclusion in the oil field where we can have eyes on the land to make sure the leaks are caught before they get out of hand," said Haineault.

He believes this program will make a big difference in protecting their land for the next generations.

"It'll help our children understand where we came from - this is a new world for us."

More on this story in the news:

The Globe and Mail:
Calgary program teaches pipeline monitoring skills with Indigenous focus

CBC: Enlisting Alberta First Nations to bolster pipeline monitoring
The Edmonton Journal: Enlisting Alberta First Nations to bolster pipeline monitoring