SEATTLE -- The dogs of the University of Washington are closing in on the cougars, even before this weekend's Apple Cup.

But these specially trainedconservation canines aren't interested in football; they're interested in rubber balls.

That interest is key to understanding a variety of threatened and endangered species and, in this case, understanding the habits and number of cougars in the Blue Mountains of southeast Washington.

The dogs can track the scent of several threatened and endangered species, from the tiny Pacific Pocket Mouse to orcas. From the scat collected, researchers extract all kinds of genetic and physiological information, even what the species has eaten.

In the cougars' case, it helps researchers understandwhetherit's overpopulation orencroachment that's allowing for more dangerous interactions with humans.

All of the dogs in the Conservation Canine program were rescued from the pound aftering being selected for their energy and high interest in play.

The dogs are trained to associate animal scat with their toy, usually a red ball. Their accuracy rate in identifying a target scat is about 93 percent, says the center's director, Samuel Wasser, PhD.

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