Detector Dogs: sniffing out pipeline leaks!

The pipeline industry takes pipeline integrity very seriously. And as our member companies strive toward a goal of zero leaks, they look to new, cutting-edge technologies to aid their efforts.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be exploring some of the latest leak detection and pipeline integrity technologies – starting this week with a look at Detector Dog Services International Ltd.’s (DDSI) pipeline leak detection dogs.

Detector Dog, Max.

Based in Calgary, Alberta, DDSI was established in 1996 by owner and operator, Ron Mistafa. Mistafa was a 16-year member of the Calgary Police Service and began his K9 training career in 1985. He formed DDSI when he returned to Canada from Bosnia, where he trained locals in using dogs to detect landmines. Today, DDSI provides leak detection services for oil and gas pipelines all over the world.

We sat down with Mistafa to get the scoop on just how dogs can be used to detect pipeline leaks.

What makes dogs a great tool for detecting pipeline leaks?

After millions of years, dogs still use their noses to survive by smelling danger or sniffing out the location of their food. We use dogs to find bed bugs, certain cancers, landmines, and to locate criminals, lost people, and even victims of natural disasters. Dogs give companies within the oil and gas industry an effective, efficient and safe detecting tool that works with speed and accuracy.

When you use dogs for leak detection, you only have to dig once. Dogs can be used during leak audits and can also be used in pipeline maintenance, especially on lines that are 30 or more years old. This part can be critical to any company because the dogs are fast and in a situation where you do not want to shut down a line, the dog can be used to locate a leak on an active line.

Dogs are wonderful detection tools, suited for use in even the most environmentally sensitive areas. The weight of the dog does not destroy sensitive flora or grasslands, as a huge mechanical shovel would. The dogs do not have to be brought in by huge trucks to a location – they are themselves self-propelling. And to date, no hi-tech machine can match the sensitivity of a dog’s nose – it’s that powerful! Dogs can serve as a powerful general maintenance tool to locate leaks on active lines before the leak can spread into small rivers and creeks or on to farmers’ fields.

How do these dogs detect pipeline leaks?

The process for using these dogs is fairly simple. It requires, an odorant mixed in water or air, a constant pressure of a minimum of 1,000 psi, although we can do it with less but it takes longer, a leaking pipeline and the dog team. We require a minimum of 1,000 psi because it works best for the dog to get the odour to the ground surface in the quickest possible time. However, the more pressure that can be utilized, the quicker the leak can be located by the dog.

The protocol for us is: if the leak is five pounds per hour and slower, in 2.5 to 5 kilometres of four to six inch pipeline, then we require two to four days of pressurization. But if the leak is of substantial size then a day or two of pressurization is required before the dog is used. Where the dog digs is where the hole or leak is located. All we do after the protocols are completed is walk over top of the marked pipeline.

Detector Dog, Max, taking a break while looking for a pipeline leak in the Wandering River, Alberta area.

What can you tell us about the dogs you use?

All of our dogs are found at the SPCA or at lab rescue groups that exist in any Canadian province. There are so many good dogs that people place there. We try to pick those that are one to five years old, and have very active personalities. We match each dog to a test criterion that ensures it will do the work that is required of it. The same criteria are used for our pipeline IED detection dogs. They then go through a training program that lasts their lifetime and ensures that their sniffing abilities are more sensitive, more accurate and much quicker than that of machines. Our training program comes from years of study and experimentation with odours and how they work in various underground environments.

Our dogs, Duke (yellow lab) and Max (German shepherd), have easy-going personalities and are very big dogs. We use the larger statured dogs because they cover more ground faster and easier, especially if we have to work on top of roaches (dirt piles) that cover a new pipeline. But the most important aspect of the dog’s personality is the ability to keep trudging along for long periods of time before they are able to locate a leak.

The other important thing to note is that this work is very safe for the dogs. The amount of odour they detect coming out from the ground is minute (measured in parts per million) and if it’s safe for the handler, it’s safe for the dog.

What do you find most satisfying about working with leak detection dogs?

What I enjoy most is the ability the dogs demonstrate while working. At the end of each search, the interpretations as to what the odour is doing below the surface always differs for me. I am constantly evaluating what the odour is doing by what the dog tells me. It’s like a story each time and I compare it to what the hiring contractor tells me he/she has found. And I marvel at the accuracy of the dogs.

I also view it as a challenge. Often engineers tell me I’m their last resort in locating a leak, after all other efforts have failed. They expect that the same will happen with the dog. After the leak has been found and I witness looks of disbelief and happy surprise, I know I’ve made them believers. I find this end result most gratifying, and it can all be attributed to the dog.

The Canadian Energy Pipeline Association represents Canada’s transmission pipeline companies who operate approximately 110,000 kilometres of pipelines in Canada. In 2011, these energy highways moved approximately 1.2 billion barrels of liquid petroleum products and 5.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Our members transport 97 per cent of Canada’s daily natural gas and onshore crude oil from producing regions to markets throughout North America.