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story.lead_photo.caption Handler Stephen Sullivan tosses a ball to Vessel, Central Arkansas Water’s new water-leak detection dog, on Tuesday after Vessel found a water sample during a demonstration. Video is available at ( Arkansas Democrat-Gazette / Staton Breidenthal)

The water utility's newest hire may not have submitted a resume, but anyone who meets her will note her skills include a strong nose, a clear bark and a wagging tail.

Vessel, a rescue black lab mix, will soon be sniffing out leaks in the system for Central Arkansas Water, the utility that serves about 450,000 customers in the region.

Though water utilities in Great Britain and Australia use leak detection dogs, Central Arkansas Water is the first in the United States to deploy one.

The rescue pup, who is about a year and nine months old, initially received obedience training through the Arkansas Paws in Prison program, where selected inmates train rescue dogs for various roles, such as service dogs. But Vessel's trainers soon realized that she had potential and was capable of a more active job.

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"We realized she had way too much drive to be a service dog for someone. She needed a job," trainer Carrie Kessler said.

Around that time, Central Arkansas Water CEO Tad Bohannon got the idea of adding a dog to the utility's ranks while at a conference in the United Kingdom. Across the pond, they're called "sniffing dogs." In the United States, canines are already used to detect leaks in oil pipelines.

Bohannon said at a news conference Tuesday that some employees laughed at the idea, but one staffer's wife connected the utility with a rescue dog agency and ultimately brought Vessel to her future employer.

Once Vessel completed her Paws in Prison training, trainers Kessler and Tracy Owen taught her how to sniff for leaks. Vessel can smell chlorine, which the utility uses to treat its water. That's how she distinguishes treated water leaking from a pipe from groundwater.

When she finds it, she lays down and barks. As a reward, each time she "alerts" correctly she gets to play with a ball.

She has spent about six weeks with her handler, leak detection specialist Stephen Sullivan, who said she has excelled. Soon she'll be pinpointing leaks that occur in neighborhoods, where water lines run through people's front yards.

Vessel lives with Sullivan and his family. Sullivan said she enjoys playing with the children and other dogs but is more relaxed after work if she's had an exciting day on the job. She prefers a challenge over repetition, he said.

Utility spokesman Doug Shackelford said leak detection technology is expensive, and employing a rescue dog is "pennies on the dollar" by comparison. She also can make the process more efficient, since she'll help crews know exactly where to dig to fix the leak, instead of them starting to dig and finding out later.

"So we only have to dig once," Shackelford said.

"We're really proud of the whole concept," he added. "We're just super excited to have her."

Photo by Staton Breidenthal
Handler Stephen Sullivan gives instructions to Vessel during Tuesday’s demonstration.

Metro on 11/20/2019

Print Headline: Utility's new worker has nose for leaks


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