First On 12/26: Dog in training to detect sewer leaks

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News 12 NBC 26 / Monday, Jan. 16, 2017

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) -- Augusta is about to get a new tool that could help them find sewer leaks.

Rory, a 2 1/2 year old Australian Shepherd, is their newest secret-weapon-in-training. She's got a nose for the nasty stuff.

It's an old problem that keeps resurfacing, literally. Sewage drains and overflows into people's yards whenever there's a big rain. We saw the effects all over people's homes about two weeks ago.

The city is working to fix it, but it's a very slow process and a costly one.

To Rory, it's all a game. We met her at the Savannah Riverkeeper headquarters, where she lives and trains. She searched with puppy-like enthusiasm to find a wooden box with a hole in the top of it. After taking a sniff inside, she sits and points. Then she gets a treat. She has no idea she's in training to be the city's newest tool.

"We're working to train dogs to find sewer line leaks," Savannah Riverkeeper and dog-mom Tonya Bonitatibus said.

Much like a drug dog or a bomb-sniffing dog, Rory will be trained to detect sewage.

"It kind of occurred to us probably about three years ago largely because we spend a lot of time trying to help identify sewer line leaks," Bonitatibus said.

A couple weeks ago, yards overflowed with sewage as the rains came down. The problem becomes obvious then, but what about when roads are dry? How do you find a leak or problem area in the system when we barely have an accurate map of the pipes underneath our feet?

"In order for us to determine there's sewage in a storm drain, we have to collect a sample, it has to go to the lab, grow for at least 24 hours, if not 48, go back again, try to find the next place, smoke the lines," Bonitatibus listed off. "I mean, thousands of dollars can go into finding a sewer line leak."

Why do all that when you can replace it with a dog's nose?

They've actually had a sewer dog before. His name was Beaudreaux.

"He was a Catahoula. He was very good. He was, as far as I know, the only dog that's ever been submitted as an expert in sewer detection in the United States," Bonitatibus said.

Thanks to a grant from Patagonia, now they can train Rory and get several answers in one.

"We really don't have a very good grasp on exactly where all these lines are," Bonitatibus said. "[Dogs] can tell us immediately the difference between 'this is clear water' or 'no, there's sewage there.'"

To train Rory, Bonitatibus collects real samples from the wastewater treatment plant. She says it will take about two and a half to three months of training, then they'll bump her up to field testing, but so far she's loving it.