A water company is hunting leads on burst pipes by deploying Britain’s first sniffer dog trained to hound down water leaks.
Snipe, a 16-month-old cocker spaniel, has undergone weeks of training by ex-military personnel to detect problem pipes by sniffing out tiny amounts of chlorine in tap water.
The dog has now been recruited by United Utilities (UU), who supply 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 assess if his sniffing skills can pinpoint water being wasted in rural areas where leaks are hard to detect.
Owner Ross Stephenson, 32, the MD of Cape SPC, a pest extermination expert firm in Liverpool, has been putting Snipe through his paces since late last year.
He 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.
“So we would have eight glass pots, one of them will have it in and every time the dog sniffs that pot he will get rewarded – a tennis ball.
“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’.”
Mr Stephenson, from Bristol, set up his firm after leaving the military two years ago, where he served with the Royal Veterinary Corps as a Corporal, deploying to war-torn Afghanistan and Iraq.
His business partner Luke Jones, 27, from Bargoed, south Wales, served in the same military unit, using dogs to search for weapons, explosives and IEDs before transferring his skills to teach dogs to sniff out bed bugs – and now detecting water leaks.
Mr Jones added: “All the principles are basically exactly the same, it’s just a different setting. And less stress.”
UU, responsible for a network of 42,000 kilometres of pipes, fixes around 27,000 leaks a year, with a team of 140 personnel, using high tech drones, camera and sound detection equipment – and now their new recruit Snipe.
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.
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.
“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.”