(WHTM) — Deer season is months away, but chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a year-round concern, especially here in the Midstate. Now, some K9s are using a powerful tool to find the deadly disease.

Hunting dogs aren’t only looking for prey. They’re sniffing out what prey leave behind through a new pilot program.

“So right now, we’re training these dogs to detect chronic wasting disease in deer feces. We’re in the kind of research phase,” said Brenna Babiy, a Conservation K9 Supervisor/Handler.

The wildlife futures program is collaborating with Penn Vet Working Dog Center.

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“We provide surveillance, diagnostics and research for organizations like the Pennsylvania Game Commission,” Babiy said.

Babiy is the CWD detection dog supervisor here in the Midstate and the handler for Vera, a Labrador, and Ukee, a German Shorthair Pointer.

The two dogs love their jobs, finding the scent and getting paid with play.

“When we’re training these dogs, obviously, we wouldn’t want to introduce chronic wasting disease into the environment. So what we’ve done is we are working the odor of chronic wasting disease on what we call an alternate training aids,” Babiy added.

Dr. Cynthia Otto is the director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center where the dogs are trained.

“Initially we saw a paper that was published. And in that paper, it described the chemistry of the smell of deer poop,” Dr. Otto said.

Using a wheel, feces from deer both with and without the disease is secured into compartments, allowing the dogs to learn how to sniff out infected samples.

“We’ve been pretty excited about the fact that we can still train these dogs on captured odor as opposed to directly on the feces because that’s a huge safety issue,” Dr. Otto added.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission is also a big help to the program since chronic wasting disease is so prevalent in the Commonwealth. The Midstate is ground zero for CWD in Pennsylvania, and the PA Game Commission says one out of three adult deer harvested here test positive for the disease.

“If we’re able to incorporate these CWD detection dogs into our surveillance program, it will really help us understand to what extent CWD is in an area, or just teach us where it is on the landscape that we may not be getting a lot of samples,” said Andrea Korman with the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

“The next step for us is to look at the amount of sample that we need because it’s really hard to collect these samples, believe it or not. And so when we train, if we train on a very small sample, is that adequate? Or do we actually need to train on a sample that’s more like what they might come across in the field?” Dr. Otto said.

The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture is also supporting the research project.