A water company has enlisted the help of a professional sniffer dog to track down leaks.
Cocker spaniel Snipe has spent weeks being trained by ex-military experts to detect potential burst pipes by sniffing out tiny amounts of chlorine in tap water.
The 16-month-old has now been employed by water company United Utilities (UU), which supplies around three million homes in the North West of England, in a UK first for dog leak detection.
Snipe will be used in trials to see if his sniffing skills can pinpoint water being wasted in rural areas where leaks are hard to detect.
Owner Ross Stephenson, 32, who served in the Royal Veterinary Corps in Afghanistan and Iraq, has been putting Snipe through his paces since late last year.
He and business partner Luke Jones, 27, served in the same military unit, using dogs to search for weapons, explosives and IEDs before setting up Cape SPC, a pest extermination expert firm in Liverpool after they left the military, transferring their skills to teach dogs to sniff out bed bugs – and now water leaks.
Ross, from Bristol, said: “All I did was start off with normal tap water, and then putting in extra chlorine levels to make it stronger. So we just put a tiny bit of that in, so the dog understands the strongest odour is the one we want them to find.”
He then used eight glass pots – one of which had the chlorine in it – and rewarded Snipe each time he sniffed the right pot.
Tap water consists of one part chlorine per million parts water – with a dog’s nose calculated as being able to detect one particle of an odour or scent in a billion.
Ross said: “What I had to do was take the pots outside first and start doing it in different environments and then I would take the pots away and then ended up having normal tap water, pouring it on the ground and getting the dog to search that.
“So we want the dog to sit and stand and stare where the source is, so try to get the dog to stay there for 30 seconds, a ‘passive indication’.”
Business partner Luke, from Bargoed, south Wales, added: “All the principles are basically exactly the same, it’s just a different setting. And less stress.”
United Utilities is responsible for a network of 42,000 kilometres of pipes and fixes around 27,000 leaks a year using a team of 140 personnel with the help of drones, camera and sound detection equipment – and now Snipe.
Hannah Wardle, regional leakage manager at UU, said: “The North West of England is a notoriously wet region, and sorting the leaks from the puddles especially out in the fields can be a real challenge.
“This is where we hope Snipe will really come into his own, as his sensitive nose can detect mains water at incredibly low concentrations.”
She added: “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.
“We are hoping within the next three months we will be in a position where the dog can be properly working for us finding leaks where we don’t know where the location is already.
“Snipe is going to be an invaluable asset to the team.”