In this episode of Engineering Legends, we hear from two special guests at Central Arkansas Water (CAW) about the nation’s first leak detecting canine – Vessel. From her Hollywood rescue on Pitbulls and Parolees to learning to detect chlorine, Vessel is an official employee of CAW has her own social media following, a customized vehicle in the CAW fleet, performs public appearances, and earns her keep by working to detect water leaks within the district.
See photos of Vessel in action, courtesy of Central Arkansas Water.
Tiffany Long: Welcome to Engineering Legends. I’m Tiffany Long here today with Kelly Rogers. We are both pretty excited about today’s episode. Kelly and I are both dog lovers, and I think we’ve mentioned before that when we’re recording this podcast more often than not, we have dogs milling around and under our feet.
Kelly Rogers: And I am very careful to time our recording sessions when the UPS truck is not expected to come by or all hell breaks loose here, and we have to start over .
Tiffany Long: Today’s story combines our love for all things water with our affinity for all things dogs. We are going to chat with Tad Bohannon, who is the CEO of Central Arkansas Water, as well as Doug Shackelford, who is the Director of Public Affairs and Communications. Tad and Doug are going to tell us all about their leak detection dog, Vessel.
Douglas Shackel: I think he came into my office that week. It was pretty quick and he’s like, “We need to get a dog.” That’s all he said. He said, “We need to get a dog.” Well, my mind didn’t go into a dog for the utility that’s going to sniff out leaks. I was thinking like a companion dog for the hallways here or something like a dog here for the office.
Kelly Rogers: Vessel is the first leak detection dog in North America. And she can sniff out water leaks from the utilities’ distribution system faster than human crews and with a 97% accuracy rate. It’s an unbelievable story that you’re not going to want to miss. Vessel actually started her story as a puppy dumped on the side of the road and has grown into such a valuable tool for leak detection, a beloved employee, and a community mascot. So our first question we have is that it’s not really common for utilities to have canines for leak detection. Tad, how did you guys come up with the idea?
Tad Bohannon: Well, I wish I could say it was our idea, an original idea, but I can’t take the credit for that. I was actually at a global water conference in Europe and I was sitting next to a water manager from Australia and they have three dogs that they use to run their water lines to search for leaks because they have these long expansive water lines running between cities, so it was kind of an introduction there that she was just talking about, but then I had also heard of that in Northern England, a utility had a water dog that they were using to sniff out water leaks.
I thought that was really interesting because they have a lot of groundwater on the ground. I mean, mostly rain fog, but there’s a lot of water on the ground in England. And we have a lot of ground water in Arkansas that surfaces, so we had a similar problem in that we go out looking for a leak, and there’s a puddle here and a puddle there and a puddle everywhere, and how do we know which one is the leak and which one is rainwater or groundwater surfacing? So with that introduction of those two stories, we just kind of took it and ran with it and said, “Well, if it works in those environments, it ought to be able to work in Little Rock Arkansas.” So we gave it a shot.
Tiffany Long: Could you tell us a little bit about how that works?
Tad Bohannon: Well, Vessel’s a mutt. She looks like a black lab, but actually, she’s a rescue, so we don’t know what she is, but what she is trained to smell the chlorine. U.S. health regulations require that there must be trace amounts of chlorine in the water as it’s traveling through the pipes. And so that’s what she is trained to sniff out, to look for. And when she first started being trained, it was just trying to get her to go to the drinking bowl that had chlorinated water… She would have two bowls, one with chlorinated water in it and one that was distilled. So it didn’t have chlorine in it. It was training her to go to the drinking water bowl, and then they kept working with her and she had to find it. It was hidden. And then she had to go find the water where it was hidden. And the thing that absolutely amazes me is she was trained out in a rural part of Arkansas outside of Little Rock, and they would take a Q-tip and dip it in some of our water and then go hide that Q-tip and she could sniff out and locate from just the trace amounts of water that were on that Q-tip.
Tiffany Long: That is amazing.
Kelly Rogers: That is amazing.
Tad Bohannon: Well, it just goes to show and tell you how sensitive the dog’s noses are and what they can find. When they first started doing the training, they told us it’s like the equivalent of a drop of blood in a swimming pool. If that’s what they were looking for, they would be able to find a drop of blood in an Olympic size swimming pool so they have some sensitive noses.
Tiffany Long: So speaking of swimming pools, does she ever detect on a swimming pool because of the chlorine?
Tad Bohannon: Actually, that’s a great question because we were really concerned about that. Being in the south, we have a lot of swimming pools because people like to cool off, but actually she goes right past that much water, that much chlorine. She just dismisses, which we think is really amazing. So, you can also take her for instance, to the water treatment plant in the chlorine building and she’s like that’s too much, that’s not what I’m looking for. She just waves that off and goes on.
Speaking of waving off, when I was talking about what she could locate, one of the first times we ever worked was just after a rainstorm and we were in a big parking lot and they had cracked a small leak at the bottom of a fire hydrant where the valve goes into the main on the bottom of a fire hydrant, so that’s about 36 inches down. They had just cracked it a little bit to create a leak. And so they let her go take off through this parking lot. We have it on video and there’s water puddles everywhere and she doesn’t even stop. It’s not like she doesn’t look and keep going. It’s like, she doesn’t even stop. She just keeps going. And she goes, and then alerts right there on that fire hydrant where the water leak was about 36 inches down.
Kelly Rogers: Now, what does she do when she detects a leak? How does she react?
Tad Bohannon: Most of the time she settles down where she finds the highest concentration of chlorine and then she’ll bark. She’s done a couple of other little things, but that’s her usual thing. The two interesting stories where she’s maybe done a little bit more is she’ll bark, and if the handler isn’t paying attention, she’ll stamp her front feet, she’ll take her front paws if she’s standing in the puddle and stamp them. It’s not that she’s trying to get his attention so that he’ll come over and see the leak. She wants his attention saying, “I found the chlorine leak. Now throw that ball so I can go chase that ball, and if you don’t throw the ball soon enough, then I’m going to get a little mad and I want to start stamping my feet.” And it’s really funny to see.
The only other thing that was really interesting, and it’s another learning event for us, is we were asked to come out on a piece of property and see if we could help locate a leak that no one could find. And so we took her out there and we took her out there in the morning sometime, but the property owner had run their sprinkler system that morning, and so there was chlorinated water all over the whole yard and she went running around and when she finally settled down, she was just splayed out all four legs going in different directions to say, “How much territory can I cover up with my body?” So we also learned that we have to tell people if we’re going to bring her out, don’t run the sprinklers a day or two before, because that way she can find what she’s looking for.
Tiffany Long: That makes sense.
Tad Bohannon: So she’s great.
Kelly Rogers: So when she does find the leak or the source or whatever she’s looking for, is that her reward, she gets to play with the ball?
Tad Bohannon: Her reward is… Different dogs react to different things. And when her trainer was working with her, she actually used a term that I had never heard before, and that it was Vessel had a high ball drive. That was kind of what was her driver. Some dogs it’s treats.
Kelly Rogers: Mine are treats.
Tad Bohannon: Some dogs are other things, but Vessel’s was a high ball drive. So that’s what they used as her reward, and so it’s another funny thing when her handler sticks the ball in her pocket or his pocket and is just walking around, Vessel, if they’re just talking or whatever and not working, Vessel will go up and put her nose on that pocket, trying to push the ball up out the top of the pocket. So she can go play ball and go chasing the ball. Absolutely loves it. You throw that ball, she chases it down. She comes running back. She drops it at your feet, and she’s ready to go again.
So that’s also interesting as part of the training regime that people need to think about is that her reward is chasing a ball. She lives with her handler and his family. The last handler, we’re between handlers right now, but her last handler had two other dogs, which was fine. She could live with other dogs, but she has to want to play with the ball for reward for work. So it’s not that she can’t chase the ball at home at all, but you don’t throw the ball so much for her at home that she gets out that she’s full. “Okay, I’ve done that enough. I don’t want to chase the ball anymore today.” So the handler’s children even have to know we can throw a ball every once in a while for a Vessel, but we don’t do that except for when she’s at work, which is an interesting thing that you don’t ever think about.
I would have never thought about that as we want her to really work. The other part of that is that she needs her reward. She’s just like any human or any other thing. It’s that if she went to work all day and she doesn’t get her reward, then she’ll stop working. So we’re a water system, just like anybody else. Everybody has leaks somewhere, and you know where there’s a leak that you haven’t gotten to repair yet because it’s a small leak and you’re dealing with the big ones, but if she’s been working all day and she hasn’t found any leaks, just because wherever they’re working there doesn’t happen to be any. The handler has to find one and kind of take her there and let her have success. He makes her work to find it, but he knows there is a leak in that area and he lets her have success so that they can play ball and she can have a reward and then she’ll keep working the next time she comes out.
Tiffany Long: Doug, tell us, how did you end up with Vessel?
Douglas Shackel: Okay. It is a unique story. Vessel was actually a rescue, and when I say a rescue, I mean rescued from a field in Louisiana as a small pup with her brothers and sisters in a cardboard box. She was rescued as part of a TV show called Pitbulls and Parolees, which is on Animal Planet. And so there’s actually an episode that shows Vessel’s rescue. Of course, at that time, she was just a pup and didn’t know she was going to become the nation’s first leak detection dog, but she was rescued as part of the show. And then she was put almost immediately into the paws in prison rotation, paws in prison program. And she ended up in Arkansas in a prison here as part of the paws in prison program. And the neat thing about that program is that those inmates within the prisons, they work with these dogs. They’re chosen, the inmates are chosen, who gets to work with the dogs and they spend time teaching them basic commands.
And it’s dozens of commands that the dogs learn while they spend that time there, and so we were able to come across Vessel through the relationships that we built trying to find a leak detection dog and well, “Hey, we’ve got a dog in mind, just like Tad said with the high ball drive that would be a good fit.” And so that’s how we were able to come with Vessel was through the trainer and brought her on board. But it’s really kind of a neat story, because you can actually go out online and find the video of her being rescued out of this field, and then now is quite the celebrity.
Tad Bohannon: There’s a great second part of that story of where we actually got hooked up with the trainer in that I was out at dinner with some employees and their spouses and one of the employees said, “You need to tell my wife about your crazy idea that you want this leak detection dog.” And I started telling her about it and she actually said, “I think I might have a trainer that could do that.” And she knew through other things, this trainer that trains dogs for multiple scent tasks. She’s trained cadaver dogs. She’s trained looking for live bodies dogs. She’s trained drug dogs, and she also trains service animals for people that need a service animal. So that’s how we got hooked up, and that’s how we actually move from Tad’s crazy idea to here’s a trainer that we might be able to work through and get this done.
And we were lucky, the trainer says, “I’ll take that challenge. I’ll take that challenge and take it on.” And so she actually was a trainer at the paw for prisons, train the trainers. She goes down on the prisons on Fridays and works with the inmates who are dog trainers to improve their training capabilities. And that’s how she got introduced to Vessel. And the other great thing is she was already named Vessel. We didn’t have a naming competition. We didn’t come up with that ourselves. It was just kind of like kismet. It was what she was made to do that she had been named Vessel.
Tiffany Long: It was meant to be. So what is her typical Workday like?
Tad Bohannon: Oh, Vessel has two typical workdays. Well, she has three. She has one where everybody’s busy doing other things and she just gets to be like any other dog in lounge around and go around and find people to pet her and just be pretty relaxed. Maybe the trainer’s doing paperwork or working on other things that need to be worked in leak detection and she just gets to kind of take it easy, but she comes to the water utility every day. We’ll see her at trainings. We’ve got a picture of her in computer training. She’s sitting in a chair, looking at a computer while her handler’s going through computer training, and so we show that picture of Vessel getting additional training today. Her more normal leak detection job is we’ll either suspect that there’s a leak in an area, or we just want to walk her along water lines that are running through easements through the country or back of houses where they’re not really seeing.
And so she’ll literally just be taken out there and turned loose and she’s told to go find water and she takes off, and so she’s just like any other dog you see in a movie or anything, nose to the ground, moving all around, and she’s looking as hard as she can look. We learned the hard way that we had to be really careful because she will just work herself to exhaustion if she’s looking. She’s a very hard working dog. It’s not like five minutes, oh, I’m going to sit and take a break. She will work as long as she can, so we search her for a while and then we give her a break, make sure she gets some water and taken care of.
Kelly Rogers: How many can she do on a day? How many miles do you think typically she goes?
Tad Bohannon: Oh, have you ever heard anything, Doug? I don’t know that I’ve ever heard.
Douglas Shackel: I don’t know that I’ve ever heard officially a mileage count, but one thing that we did recognize, and I know Tad can speak to this as well, is she walks a lot more than you think about when she’s working. If the handler’s walking in a straight line, she’s walking in a zigzag, and so she’s getting in a lot of steps in that same distance… If it’s a thousand yards that she’s got from end to end, well, that’s how far the handler’s going to walk, but she may go 3000 just because of the way she works, but as far as a mileage count, we’d have to get a pedometer and put on her. We’ve never done that.
Tad Bohannon: But then her third job is customer relations. She is great at finding leaks, but we call her our rockstar as far as community engagement and customer relations. You got a customer who’s upset about standing water in their yard or something, and she shows up and alerts or doesn’t alert. Even if she doesn’t alert, when our person is able to say, “Oh well Vessel, that’s not our water. That’s got to be groundwater.” It’s like the whole hostile situation, all the anxiety gets brought down. So she’s great working with customers. You take her to schools. How many 10 year old kids want to sit around and listen to you talk about water treatment or water pipe delivery, but you talk about it through the eyes of a dog, talking with people and explaining, this is what she’s looking for. This is why she’s looking for it.
This is what makes our water different from rainwater. It all relates back to this dog, sitting over there and it becomes instantly relatable and holds people’s attention, so as I often say, there’s a whole lot of meetings I walk in and they go, “Oh, you showed up. We thought Vessel was coming.” Everybody wants to see her.
Kelly Rogers: She’s got a pretty sweet ride, too, when she comes to visit, right?
Tad Bohannon: She does. She has the Vessel mobile. I don’t think it’s been officially called that.
Kelly Rogers: And we’ll post pictures online. So people can see it.
Tad Bohannon: But our communications team that Doug is part of and leads, put a wrap on it, and it has her picture on the side. So people know that that’s Vessel’s truck. If you take a crew cab, full size pickup crew cab, take out the back seat and put an insert in there and she’s got a dog bed in there. I don’t know how this water bowl works, but she’s got a water bowl that you fill up with water but even with the truck driving down the road, the water doesn’t slosh everywhere, but she can get water when she wants it and then the other thing that goes in with that, it’s actually got some special features. For instance, it gets hot down here in the summer. We had several hundred degree days where the heat index got to 110 or so this summer.
So if she’s in the truck, we leave the truck running. It’s set up so that he can lock the doors and the truck will still be running, which a lot of cars these days won’t let you do that unless the key’s in the truck or the car. So it’s set to do that, but it also has a kit on it so if the car ever dies, the windows immediately roll down and on the inside of the windows as a fan that moves air through there, so in the south, you always hear about animals being locked up in a car and having heat problems. But her truck is designed to keep that from happening. So she stays safe.
Tiffany Long: That is super cool. You could probably mass market those to dog lovers everywhere.
Kelly Rogers: Yeah.
Tad Bohannon: We worked with the canine officers from the local police department. They were a huge help in helping us figure out what we needed to do and think about having a working dog that she’s got basically the same ride set up inside the vehicle as a K9 would have, except for K9 handlers have a button on their vest that they can key and the door pops open and we didn’t figure she needed the pop open door, but the K9 officers have that. It’s like a help call. Come running and help me. I need some help from my K9 dog, and so they can remotely unlock their doors.]. We figured we didn’t need that feature. So we didn’t do that, but they were huge help. They were very receptive. They were very glad to help us, but they were huge help in getting set up as to what we would need.
Kelly Rogers: So what technology do you use or how do you determine where you’re going to send her out to look for leaks? Do you do some sort of GPS survey? What kind of surveying happens to find where she’s going to be sent?
Tad Bohannon: We talk about it, that we use the most high tech instruments and we use the oldest technology of a dog’s nose. We have been working a lot with her using satellite technology, so one area where we really focus on to use her effectively is we partner up with a company called ASTERRA of Israel actually, and they fly an area of our system with a satellite. And that satellite, I can’t tell you how it does it from space, but it basically detects changes in moisture content of the soil. And so it marks as it flies over our system, what they call points of interest, and then they will send us a file with several hundred points of interest and then we take those points of interest and we use Vessel as our first go around because she can just hop out of the truck, run up, go, nope, there’s nothing here and hop back in her truck or go and alert as to where it’s there.
So if you think about the time and effectiveness of a human pulling out all their equipment, hooking it up to either the earmuffs or with the wand or hooking up fire hydrant locators, the time that it would take to do that versus her hopping out of the truck. Because when they come back with a point of interest, they divine that point of interest to about 300 feet. They draw a circle and it’s not a huge area, and so she can just hop out of the truck and go look in and then say, “Nope, I’m back. There’s nothing here. Let’s go to the next one.”
Kelly Rogers: And if you didn’t have Vessel, how would you go about it without her?
Tad Bohannon: You have to use some technical sound where they’d use sound detection, equipment. The most common one, I don’t know what it’s called, but it looks like a probe and you have earphones on like a headset and you stick that probe in the ground and it’s listening for the sound of a leak, but you have to listen for that and you have to walk around with that probe looking for it, where she could do it real quick. One of the amazing things we found is that when we pair the two together, when we pair the point of interest from the satellite, with her, she’s about 97% accurate, and the 3% where she’s not accurate, it’s that we couldn’t find a leak. She indicated there was a leak, but we couldn’t find it, so we don’t know if she was wrong or not. We just know that she indicated a leak and we couldn’t find it.
And we did a lot of backup when we were first trying to prove the concept in that if she didn’t find a leak, we went and looked for it manually. We went and looked for it, using the old technology style and she was never wrong. She never missed one. And the 3% that she was off, she found something that we couldn’t find, and like I said earlier, somebody may have watered their yard. Somebody could have turned their hose on to do something. Just because there’s not a leak doesn’t mean there wasn’t chlorine there, so she’s pretty incredible and it’s been a great partnership teaming those two technologies together if you want to call her nose a technology, but teaming her with the satellite moisture detection has been a great partnership.
Tiffany Long: That’s fantastic that she’s that accurate. It’s amazing.
Tad Bohannon: Very. I almost want to go, when she finds something to go, “You didn’t find it? Get back out there and look some more.” There’s something there.
Kelly Rogers: How deep can she detect? How far down can she detect a leak?
Tad Bohannon: What she’s looking for is the escape of the chlorine vapor. So as long as the chlorine vapor can get up through the soil, she can hear it. I think about the deepest pipe that she’s discovered was somewhere between 38 and 40 inches deep, but we’re not in the north. We have some pipes that are really deep, but we try to avoid that. That’s just more dirt you have to dig out of the way when you’re going to make a repair, but she can sense that. Now get into an urban environment and there’s advantages and disadvantages. She’s great, but if everything’s covered in concrete asphalt, there’s nowhere for the chlorine vapor to escape, and so unless there’s a crack in the concrete or something where the water can come up or the vapor can come up, she’s not going to pick it up.
And one of the other things we had to learn from just working with her is that it’s not uncommon that storm sewers and waterlines cross each other, and if the water gets into the storm sewer, it doesn’t come out into the air right there. The vapor is looking for the easiest place to get out of that storm sewer and the easiest place to come out of that storm sewer is what we would call the gutter and the street where the water from the storm normally pours into the storm sewer system. That’s the easiest place for the vapor to come out and that’s where she’ll go alert. Now, the great thing that tells us is that the leak is getting into the storm sewer. So we can pull up the map of the storm sewer in our water system. And we can say, “Where do the two cross?”
But she won’t do like she might do on a grass yard where the vapor comes up fairly close to where the leak is. She may be two blocks away. It just depends on… So we kind of had to learn, okay, if we’re working the city and she goes to a storm sewer, that means we got to go somewhere else. A great story with her that kind of relates to this is there was a property owner that had a leak on their line and they were just getting these huge water bills and we didn’t get her really to work with customer service lines, but when the customer is really having a problem, we try to help him out and see what they can do. And he was having huge leaks and he had had all these different companies come out and plumbers come out and everybody looking for the leaks and nobody could find it.
And he had a fairly long service line and they couldn’t find it, so we sent her out there and she went down and reacted to the creek. So right next to his house, there was a creek that had a bridge with a culvert over the top of it. And the waterline crossed that creek at that bridge and that culvert and sure enough, the waterline was leaking and then it was coming down and it was dropping into the creek through the culvert. It was coming down in, and so she was alerting at the right place and when the people actually went in there and they went, “Oh, there is water trickling out from the ceiling.” And then they tested it and it was chlorinated water, so now they knew that the leak was right there on top of that creek and that culvert. That was a pretty incredible story because everybody had been looking and nobody had been able to find it.
Tiffany Long: If other utilities are interested in doing something similar, what are some of the considerations they should keep in mind? Where does it work? Where does it not work?
Tad Bohannon: Sure. That’s a great question. And we’ve talked to a number of utilities about this. I think there’s a number of things that I like to stress to utilities if they’re thinking about doing this. One, it’s a commitment. It’s like you go from being no kids to kids. All of a sudden, there’s something else demanding your attention and your time, so there is a commitment to having the dog and it’s your dog for life, and she’s owned by the company, so as her handlers leave or get promoted and they’re not going to be the handler anymore, then we have to find another handler. They don’t take her with them. Even though she’s been living with them while that person was a handler, she goes to the next handler, so to speak. So there is a commitment there that you have to be willing to take on.
It’s dog food, it’s vet bills. Most water utilities don’t have a line on their budget for veterinary care or dog food, and we do. It’s an extra thing that you have there. The other thing we learned, her first handler who did a great job and he gets her back whenever we go between handlers. Her first handler was a water utility employee that was really interested in the job, and he knew all about leak detection and everything. What he didn’t know about was dogs. He had a couple of dogs in his family, but he didn’t know about dogs, and so we had to train the handler and we thought that was the right approach to take because he understood how water works and the system works, so we had to train the handler. When he got promoted, we actually had an applicant from a K9 officer who wanted to get out of law enforcement and come to work for us handling Vessel.
And what we found there is this was a person who was already a highly trained dog handler, and even our first handler would say, “She can do so much more, and she is so more effective with him than she was with me, because he really knows how to work her.” And so he was a dog person who we taught about the water industry. Here’s how water leaks work. Here’s the chemistry, here’s what’s going on. Here’s how to use the mechanical leak detection equipment, so we kind of learned that moving one of your own employees isn’t necessarily the thing to do.
Also, she has a truck, she’s got a Facebook page, she’s got a Twitter page. She gets requests from the public to make appearances, and our distribution crews are used to, well, I’m going to come every day and I’m going to fix the system. Are we need this person finding leaks and Doug, as director of our communications is going, “But we need her to make a public service appearance over here. We don’t need her chasing leaks today.” So you have to work out that partnership between your different departments and what have you. Our handler, our trainer has trained some additional dogs. We got lucky our first dog turned out to be a great dog. Even the K9 officer that came to work for us says, “I’ve had a dozen dogs in my career and I’ve never had a dog like Vessel. She’s absolutely incredible.” But I know of other utilities that it took them three dogs to find the dog that would really do the work and was real… They’d start training. And then they’d say, “Well, this just isn’t working out.”
Kelly Rogers: And I think they’re using dogs now too, for sewer detection. I read an article somewhere that I think they’re trying to do the same thing with sewer leaks as well.
Tad Bohannon: I’ve heard that too, and I don’t know how that’s going, but I’ve heard that also.
Kelly Rogers: So when you came back from your conference with this crazy idea, how hard was it to convince the utility to go all in on it?
Tad Bohannon: I think, and Doug can tell you from the other side, but I throw a lot spaghetti on the wall and see if it sticks. That’s just my leadership style, and I think when I first started talking about it, they thought I was just throwing spaghetti on the wall to see if anybody would bite and take from it. I always tell them if I mention it three times, I’m serious. And so it kept coming up in conversations, but I think it was such a different way of thinking about things. And let’s be honest, you probably have engineers that listen to this podcast, but engineers aren’t the most, “Oh yeah, let’s get an animal to do what a technology could do.”
Kelly Rogers: Exactly.
Tad Bohannon: And so I think there was a lot of skepticism, but after we found the trainer and then that first time she came out and ran through the parking lot and just skipped right over the rain puddles and went to the leak at the bottom of the fire hydrant. I think that’s when it finally went, okay, this could work. This could actually do something. And up until then, I kind of think it was Tad’s folly that they thought I was going down. You have a different take on it, Doug?
Douglas Shackel: No, I don’t have a different take. I just have a different view than a lot of the folks here at the utility, when he came back from the conference, and I think he came into my office that week. It was pretty quick and he’s like, “We need to get a dog.” That’s all he said. He said, “We need to get a dog.” Well, my mind didn’t go into a dog for the utility that’s going to sniff… I was thinking a companion dog for the hallways here or something like a dog here for the office? And he’s like, “No, a leak detection dog.” Well then immediately public relations practitioner here, my hat goes on, and it’s like, well, yeah, because…
Tiffany Long: Who doesn’t love a dog?
Douglas Shackel: Who doesn’t love a dog? That’s exactly right. You know she’s going to be beloved around the community because she’s a dog. And so we started doing a little research on our end and Tad mentioned the social media and that was one of the first things we did. We actually had a professional photo shoot. Once we had her done with the training, we brought her out to the lake, had professional photographers out there, put her in her detection vest and all those things and snapped those pictures, got the truck wrapped. Did the Instagram page, did the Facebook, the Twitter accounts, and then in November of ’19, I believe was the year. Yeah, November of ’19, we introduced her to the world via a pretty large event downtown here in Little Rock and a press conference, if you will and had her work right there in front of all the TV cameras and it took off like wildfire. So again, maybe the engineers or others saw it differently than the communications department. We’re like, wait a minute, we’re kind of doing this right here. It’s like, oh, this is going to be really good.
Kelly Rogers: But with that accuracy rate, I bet you they’re singing a different song now. It sounds like it’s been very successful.
Douglas Shackel: Agreed. Yeah. I think everyone has found their value from this technology. It really truly is because yeah, she’s beautiful, and she’s great. When she comes in to the office here, she’ll just walk into my office and sit down and I’ll pet her for a few minutes and then she goes along her way, but the training that’s gone into Vessel and the work with the handler, something like buying the truck with all the technology in it. This is a vital tool for the utility. This one just happens to have four legs and a great smile, and she loves the camera.
Kelly Rogers: Well, she really is beautiful and we will post photos of her truck and her so everybody can see what she looks like and really understand. But yeah, any other questions you have, Tiff?
Tiffany Long: I was a little curious when you were talking about having her in an urban setting, do you worry about traffic or her not finding her way back with all those various smells or is she attuned to the other things going on around her?
Tad Bohannon: She’s not a dog to run out in traffic. She’s been socialized. Part of her training was the sniffing, but she also got all the training of walking in a building people can go up and pet her. She doesn’t have a vest that says, “Working dog. Do not pet.” She’s socialized. She can go to a restaurant and she’ll just sit underneath the chair like another service dog would or whatever. So she’s well trained, socialized, whatever. Working in neighborhoods, they have a real long leash. And I can’t tell you how long it is, but it’s pretty long so she can go back and forth as she’s trying to chase that down, so it’s not a traffic, big concern. There’s everything else that you have to deal with in an urban environment. But no, she works really well, even in an urban environment, as long as you’re able to be looking in the right places to be able to find what you need. You were talking earlier about anything to think about, and we’ve had her since ‘19, so she’s been working three years, almost three years in November.
She was great during COVID. She could get out and still do her job and do whatever, and she got to do more leak detection and less public appearances because nobody was having group gatherings, but I even have mentioned our folks that we need to be careful because technology is coming along. You cannot go to any conference that somebody doesn’t have a better electronic leak detection that you put on your fire hydrants, or you put on your whatever, put sensors in your system to find those leaks. And when it’s going to happen, I don’t know, but I do think there’s a time that she’s going to get put out of a job by technology. I don’t think we’re there yet, but there is going to be a time.
Kelly Rogers: What’s the cost comparison between something like Vessel and the new technology?
Tad Bohannon: She’s cheaper. I would jump up and down, she’s cheaper, but you don’t have to buy dog food or have her go to the vet. The technology you just have to have a technician to make sure it’s working right. But even in our urban environments where we have concentrations of fire hydrants, we’ve started using fire hydrant leak detection, sonic leak detection devices, because we’ve even found that in that environment, that is the most efficient way to find a leak. In other environments, she’s the most efficient way to find a leak. So she’s just like any other tool in a water utilities toolbox to accomplish the things they need, whether it’s leak detection, whether it’s public interaction, whether it’s getting school kids excited about the water company that they would otherwise never be excited about. She’s a tool, and you just got to figure out the right way to deploy that tool to get the maximum benefit out of it.
Kelly Rogers: So when she retires, is there a plan for what happens to Vessel when she retires?
Tad Bohannon: I think 95% of the employees are going to throw their name into the hat for when she’s retired and not working anymore, and maybe we’ll do a fundraiser and sell lottery tickets or something because she is really popular. We haven’t gotten to that point yet. Maybe we should, but I’m sure there’ll be a big pull for whoever that final handler is to say, well, she ought to just stay there. That’s what the K9 officers do, that type of thing or the military dogs or those dog retires, their handler gets first choice to do you want to keep the dog? And so we may have to follow that one, but now you’ve got me thinking about fundraising for affordability programs or all kinds of other things.
Kelly Rogers: New spaghetti to throw at the wall.
Tad Bohannon: New spaghetti to throw on the wall, but hopefully that’s several years away.
Douglas Shackel: He only said it once, so he’s got to say it two more times before we start working on it.
Kelly Rogers: It’s a real idea. Well, we really appreciate your guys’ time today. We love sharing this story with our listeners and we think people are going to just love to hear about Vessel and you’ve got to go out and look at the photos too, because she’s just precious and the truck is so cool and we really appreciate your time today.
Tad Bohannon: Well thank you for having us on. It’s been a great time.
Tiffany Long: Again, thank you to Tad and Doug for sharing Vessel’s story today. After hearing about Vessel, I have been chuckling watching my own dog Wayne find pillows to carry around the house so that he can comfortably lounge. I cannot imagine him working for hours at a time. We hope that other utilities consider adding a canine employee to their roster. As we mentioned during the discussion, please check out the photos of Vessel on the job. She is a beautiful girl with valuable talent.
Kelly Rogers: Definitely. We know that many of our listeners out there have their own engineering legend stories. We’d love to hear from you. Please send us your feedback, stories and ideas for future episodes. You can reach us at email@example.com. This podcast was brought to you by Brown and Caldwell. It’s our purpose and passion to safeguard water, maintain infrastructure, and restore habitats to keep our communities thriving until next time.