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Utility uses dog to detect leaks

An English cocker spaniel (Wikimedia Commons/Tom Bjornstad).
An English cocker spaniel (Wikimedia Commons/Tom Bjornstad).

United Utilities, a water company in North West England, is using a cocker spaniel to detect leaks by smelling the small amounts of chlorine in mains water. The dog is still in its trial phase.

The utility is hoping that the dog, called Snipe, will be able to identify leaking pipes in areas where leak detection is more difficult due to the generally wet conditions.

To develop the dog’s sense of smell for this task, instructors first created a positive association in the dog by giving it a treat when it sniffs a jar containing chlorinated water among other empty jars. The dog is then introduced to more complicated situations, like spilt mains water among chlorine-free ground water to see if it can differentiate between normal rain water and treated water leaking from a pipe.

The dog’s trainers originally worked with dogs to detect weapons and explosives in the military. The men first transferred their skills to train dogs to sniff out bed bugs before moving on to leak detection. One of the trainers, Ross Stephenson, commented in a statement that dogs' noses can be used for a variety of applications: “Using dogs to search for drugs and explosives is well known, but there are a host of other applications that we are only just starting to explore. We’re really excited by the progress Snipe is making and we hope that soon water leak sniffer dogs will be a common sight.”

Regional leakage manager at United Utilities, Hannah Wardle, said in a press release that the company relies on a number of technologies to get a better idea of how their network is performing, including satellites and drones.

“With leakage detection it’s all about building up the evidence using a range of different technologies. We’re trialling the use of satellites and drones to get a bird’s eye view of a particular area, but the devil is in the detail, and pinpointing the exact place to start digging is more difficult than you might think. Snipe is going to be an invaluable asset to the team.”

An English cocker spaniel (Wikimedia Commons/Tom Bjornstad).