Working like a dog: keen canine noses sniff out leaking pipelines

CALGARY – Duke has the scent.

The white-gold lab lopes through a field, pulling his owner, Ron Mistafa, behind him.

It takes about a minute for the pooch to circle through the tall grass and hone in on the spot where Mistafa has buried a small jar of crude oil.

“Atta boy!” Mistafa says to Duke, who is digging away the dirt covering the jar. Mistafa tosses the dog his reward for a job well done: A rubber ball to chew on.

For about two decades, Mistafa has run Detector Dog Services International, a Calgary-based outfit that helps clients in the oil and gas sector to search out pipeline leaks, drugs and explosives.

Mistafa has two dogs working for him: Duke, for pipeline leak jobs, and George, a lab cross who specializes in drugs and explosives. Both live with Mistafa, along with a springer spaniel named Toby, who is retired.

Mistafa figures Duke gets only about five per cent of the work. In a good year, that’s about five or six jobs. The vast majority of demand is from companies wanting George’s help in ridding work camps of illicit items.

Mistafa spent several years in the Calgary police K-9 unit followed by a stint training dog handlers in landmine detection in Bosnia.

He runs Duke through the oil-searching exercise about once or twice a week to keep the dog’s skills sharp.

Duke gets excited when he knows it’s time for work, often lifting up a paw in anticipation when he sees Mistafa is getting the harness ready.

It’s the benzene in the jar of crude that’s got Duke’s nose twitching this time.

When an active pipeline is leaking below ground, Duke can smell the gases that emanate to the surface. For pipelines that aren’t carrying any product, Mistafa will mix a substance called mercaptan — the same rotten-egg smell when a gas stove has been left on or a furnace is leaking — into pressurized air or water, enabling Duke to detect a potential leak.

An assignment can involve Mistafa walking Duke for several hours along a pipeline right-of-way in remote locales, with rest and water breaks along the way.

“I have to watch the dog,” he says. “His body language will tell me there is a story, there is something here.”

He says dogs aren’t used as widely for this purpose as he thinks they should be, with many industry players tending to prefer more high-tech methods.

The work doesn’t need to be complicated, Mistafa argues, adding the dogs save companies time and money.

“People in the industry, especially engineers, they like their toys.”

Canada’s two biggest pipeline firms say they don’t have dogs as a regular part of their leak-detection arsenal.

Enbridge spokesman Graham White says the company’s existing leak detection methods are “proven and effective.” Among other things, Enbridge uses computer-based monitoring, aerial and ground patrols and acoustic devices.

Mark Cooper, a spokesman with TransCanada, says the company has many overlapping methods to detect leaks.

“While dogs aren’t a regular part of our multi-layered strategy, the use of canine sniffing is something that we recognize as a legitimate tool that can be added to supplement our toolbox in certain situations,” he says.

“We’d obviously note that dogs are used around the world as an integrated part of security at major international airports and it is certainly not surprising to see their keen senses being applied to many other uses.”

Mistafa gets his dogs from rescue organizations. He’s on the lookout for raw talent.

“I compare the dogs to the Wayne Gretzky of hockey players. You didn’t have to teach Wayne Gretzky or Gordie Howe all that much. It was natural to them and that’s what I look for in a dog — something that’s natural,” he said.

A “driven” personality is also important.

“If I hid a ball, they won’t just go crazy looking in the room looking for a ball. They actually will be very studious in looking all areas for this ball,” says Mistafa.

“If a dog can do that on his own, then that’s perfect. That’s the personality I want.”

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