You may be more familiar with seeing sniffer dogs at airports or police stations, but Thames Water is now putting the creatures’ famous sense of smell to use in the battle against leaks.
The company is running a trial with a specialist company which sees man’s best friend patrolling 40km of pipeline in the region to sniff out potential leaks in the pipes.
If it is successful, the scheme could be rolled out more widely and help Thames Water in its fight to reduce the amount of water lost through these leaks.
The trial is being run by Ross Stephenson, director of Canine Assisted Pest Eradication (CAPE), with canine colleague Snipe, a three-year-old Sprocker spaniel.
Mr Stephenson said: “The dog is detecting the small amount of chlorine used to make tap water safe to drink. When underground pipes leak, some of which are 2m down, the chlorine from the water will come up through the surface.
“When he picks up a scent, he will stare at a point where he smells there’s chlorine and I will take a grid reference.
“I like to do 4km per dog, per day. I could go further than that but the dogs do get bored so after 4km I’ll go off and do training with the dog to make sure he’s still excited about the job he’s doing.”
The pair spent the morning of Tuesday, October 15, in Hambleden, South Oxfordshire, following a main towards High Wycombe. They use maps to track the pipeline and relocate themselves if they go off course.
Any points of interest are marked with blue spray paint to be inspected by engineers later. The scheme has been used by other water companies and uncovered an average of nine leaks per 41km.
The technique is perfect for the countryside but cannot be used on tarmac or concrete ground as the chlorine smell doesn’t permeate the surface.
Mr Stephenson previously spent 10 years in the Royal Veterinary Corps and did tours of Iraq and Afghanistan, training dogs to search for buried improvised explosive devices.
He founded CAPE in 2016 and now has six dogs – three water leak detection dogs and three bed bug detection dogs.
Mr Stephenson adopted Snipe, a rescue dog, two-and-a-half years ago and says he was immediately impressed by his aptitude for the job.
He said: “His drive for the ball, which is his reward for finding chlorine, was so high that I thought I’d be able to build his confidence up and work with him. Now he’s a superstar.
“On average it takes about three months to get them up and running. The hardest thing for us is not getting the dog on the scent, it’s the stamina to keep them moving and building up the distances.”
The trial scheme is just one of a range of measures Thames Water is employing to help detect and fix leaks in its network, including satellite surveys and temperature analysis, devices installed in large pipes to monitor the water flow and an increase in planned repair work.
The company has reduced leakage by 27 per cent over the past 15 years, saving an estimated 448 million litres per day of water in 2018/19.
Mike Kodua, Thames Water’s network infrastructure and trunk mains leakage programme manager, added: “Reducing leakage is a top priority for Thames Water and our customers.
“We’ve significantly increased investment this year and are spending over £1 million a day on our underground network to help reduce leaks. We’re also fixing a record number of leaks – more than 1,400 every week on average.
“There is no quick and easy way to reduce leakage and stop bursts, but we’re convinced the changes and strategy in place now will deliver results for the long term.”