Untamed Lowcountry

Meet Tau, the dog that’s training for a critical mission on Hilton Head

Tau has had a lot thrown at him lately.

At the moment, the 3-year-old Australian cattle dog — a blue heeler — who hails from Ohio is training on Hilton Head Island’s beaches so he can go work on Maui.

Where he will sniff out sea turtle nests.

If he takes to the gig.

“We threw a lot at him when we first went to Hilton Head,” Athena Haus — the dog’s trainer — said Tuesday morning of the two-day orientation session she facilitated during the July 4 holiday with Tau and handler Cheryl King. “We went from a small swab of cloacal fluid to, now, a whole nest. Which is overwhelming.”

Haus has been training dogs for two decades. Her specialty: search and rescue dogs that find people, dead or alive. The cloacal fluid? That’s the stuff that lubricates the eggs, allowing them to slide out of a female turtle.

“That’s why (Tau’s) here, to be able to identify that (cloacal fluid) smell on Hilton Head,” said Amber Kuehn, who directs the Coastal Discovery Museum’s Sea Turtle Protection Project on the island. “Because we have a lot of that smell around here right now.”

It’s been a record nesting season on Hilton Head this year — 373 nests as of Tuesday morning, according to Kuehn.

There won’t be as many nests in Maui.

On average there are fewer than 20 nesting female turtles a year on Hawaii’s shores, said King, a marine biologist who’s leading this year’s night patrols on Hilton Head and who directs a Hawaii-based program similar to Kuehn’s. There might be just 100 nests annually on the island chain, King said.

And the Hawaiian turtles are hawksbills, a critically endangered species.

“The nesting areas are really remote, and the nests themselves are very discrete,” King said, adding that the tide will wash away turtle tracks, which makes it harder to locate nests.

Tau, whose Australian Aboriginal name means “sunset,” will hopefully be able to pinpoint those nests. For now, though, he’s feeling his way through the dark.

“We’re kind of going a little slow with actually connecting him with what we want him to do, which is finding the nest without any help,” King said. “I’m not a dog trainer — I’m a marine biologist — which is probably one of the shortfalls of this mission.”

But she said the dog has potential. He’s good with children and people, and he likes riding the beach on an ATV.

There aren’t many beaches in Ohio, and even fewer sea turtles.

Tau, who was part of a litter Haus rescued, began his training three years ago. He started out trying to locate box turtles. He graduated to Q-tips, swabs of cloacal fluid Haus obtained with the help of a marine biologist at Disney World and the state of Florida.

Now, he’s able to be around the turtles while they’re nesting and pick up on their scent.

But that scent can get trapped in beach grass, Haus said. The wind can throw him off. It’s the beach, after all — a new environment.

The learning process, a partnership between dog and handler, will take some time.

“If he gets the concept down in Hilton Head, he’ll be set up for greatness,” King said. “And we could fail.”

But, she said, she’s optimistic.

Tau is easing into coastal life. He’s getting used to the noise from the beach renourishment construction equipment. And he’s adapted to living with Kuehn — King’s college classmate — and her two dogs.

Tau was crate trained in Ohio. Potty trained, too.

But he’s had a few accidents in Kuehn’s house on the island.

He’s working on it, though.

One more change he’s overcoming.

One more thing he’s learning.

Wade Livingston: 843-706-8153, @WadeGLivingston

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