In November 2010, a serious problem emerged in the Everglades: A growing number of pythons had infested the area, threatening the native animal population and the park’s delicate ecosystem.

The situation mirrored the plot of some big Hollywood action movie — except Samuel L. Jackson was nowhere to be found. Instead, two unlikely heroes emerged: a pair of detection dogs from Auburn University’s Animal Health and Performance program in Alabama.

Detection dogs, who can sniff out everything from explosives to narcotics, are specifically trained to “fringe” respond: When they reach a search threshold that’s within a five-meter perimeter, they know to sit and let the professional snake handlers step in to wrangle the reptile.

According to Craig Angle, Ph.D., associate director of the university’s Veterinary Sports Medicine program, the dogs have so far covered about 390 miles of the park and have found 19 pythons, including the largest capture on record (14.5 feet!) in the United States.

Professional Athletes of the Dog World

What, you may ask, does a sports medicine doctor know about training detection dogs? The answer is part of what makes Auburn University’s program so unusual and groundbreaking.

Under the guidance of Director Dr. Rob Gillette, DVM, MSE, the department encompasses both Veterinary Sports Medicine — a novel focus in the veterinary field — and The Canine Detection Research Institute, headed by Associate Director John Pearce, CDRI.

At both the research-focused Auburn campus and the 300-acre Anniston training facility that houses up to 150 dogs, Dr. Gillette, Angle and Pearce treat their dogs just like professional athletes, exposing them to the highest level of conditioning, physiology, nutrition and training. “Optimum health leads to optimum performance,” Dr. Gillette says.

In other words, it’s the kind of fitness prowess required to cover almost 400 miles of swamp on foot while on the prowl for snakes.

John Pearce

Three Men, One Canine Mission

The trio is obviously doing something right. Pearce, who spent 23 years with the U.S. Air Force’s Department of Defense dog school in San Antonio, Texas, joined Auburn University’s program in 2002.

“I grew up with dogs,” he explains. “That was my chosen focus in the military.” Today Pearce breeds and trains Labrador Retrievers — who are well-suited to detection — for law enforcement agencies and instructs dog handlers for the TSA, Amtrak and fire and police departments.

It’s this high level of research, education and handler training that sets Auburn apart from other federal or private-sector detection dog programs. Their view of pooches as athletes makes them different as well.

“The dogs at Auburn are doing big things. They screened people closest to the president at the last inauguration,” Pearce says proudly. “They’re considered athletes, so we mix sports medicine with training to make detector dogs. We’re the only one-stop, comprehensive program out there for canine nutrition, genetics and the environment.”

The Canine Conditioning Expert

Angle is responsible for getting the dogs in tiptop shape. “Just like football players condition every day, we swim them and run them,” he says. “We want to improve their muscular endurance because the jobs they have to do are athletic in nature. If they have to do a perimeter or open area search, they may cover 10 miles — and the whole time they’re having to regulate their breathing, so they can sniff.”

It’s interesting to note that Angle’s background is in human sports biomechanics. “I just fell in love with the dog side,” he says. “Animal sports medicine is a new field, and there’s so much research to be done.”

Between dogs and humans (and even horses) on campus, there are many behavioral differences that Angle needs to consider. For instance, a dog’s heart rate may shift because he sees a butterfly and gets excited. On the flip side, dogs don’t sweat, so electrolyte issues aren’t as much of a factor.

In total, 80 dogs are “maintained” on campus at all times. Angle focuses specifically on Pointers who find pheasants and duck-hunting dogs who sprint and swim through swamps. The department even works with sled dog kennels on nutrition and veterinary consults.

Rob Gillette, DVM

Big Veterinarian on Campus

It’s Dr. Gillette who marries the many facets of the program. While studying at Kansas State’s veterinary college in the 1980s, he worked evenings at a Greyhound and horse-racing track, which inspired him to study the kinesiology of human performance and get his master’s in biomechanics. In 1997, he came to Auburn — and took over the program just three years later.

Although Dr. Gillette’s focus is largely on the canine side of things, he has partnered with equine expert Dr. John Schumacher, DVM, MS, DACVIM, ABVP, to do gait analysis on the university’s horses.

In fact, the duo came up with a somewhat revolutionary idea to videotape horse meets, so riders on the university’s equine team could review them and improve their performance. The team has since won three championships.

“They asked if I’d like an NCAA national championship ring,” Dr. Gillette says. “It’s not every day that you get one of those.”

To hear Dr. Gillette talk about it, he has the best job in the world: “I come to work and play with dogs every day. What could be better than that?”

And from his perspective, the biggest difference between working in animal sports medicine and veterinary medicine is the preventive element.

“As veterinarians, we’re usually trained to deal with lameness or sickness,” Dr. Gillette says. “Sports medicine is a change in the paradigm because you’re working with nutrition and physiology to optimize the dogs’ metabolic health. A lot of the behavioral problems are reduced, too, because they’re happier. It’s truly a partnership between us and the dogs, and we strive to be a leader, to make this the best program it can be.”