Entrepreneur employs dogs to look for oil and gas pipeline leaks

Ron Mistafa of Detector Dog Services International with his yellow lab, Duke. Photo by The Canadian Press

CALGARY, A.B. – A Calgary-based entrepreneur is enlisting the acute sense of smell of man’s best friend to search for oil and gas pipeline leaks.

For the past two decades, Ron Mistafa has run Detector Dog Services International, which helps clients in the oil and gas sector to search out pipeline leaks, drugs and explosives.

Mistafa has two dogs working for him: A yellow lab named Duke who specialises in looking for pipeline leak jobs, and George, a lab cross who specializes in drugs and explosives. Both live with Mistafa, along with a retired springer spaniel named Toby.

Mistafa figures Duke gets only about five per cent of the work. In a good year, that’s about five or six jobs. The vast majority of demand is from companies wanting George’s help in ridding work camps of illicit items.

Mistafa spent several years in the Calgary police K-9 unit followed by a stint training dog handlers in landmine detection in Bosnia.

He runs Duke through the oil-searching exercise about once or twice a week to keep the dog’s skills sharp, using a jar of crude oil as the bait.

The benzene in the jar of crude is what gets Duke’s nose twitching. When an active pipeline is leaking below ground, Duke can smell the gases that emanate to the surface. For pipelines that aren’t carrying any product, Mistafa will mix a substance called mercaptan – the same rotten-egg smell when a gas stove has been left on or a furnace is leaking – into pressurized air or water, enabling Duke to detect a potential leak.

An assignment can involve Mistafa walking Duke for several hours along a pipeline right-of-way in remote locales, with rest and water breaks along the way.

He says dogs aren’t used as widely for this purpose as he thinks they should be, with many industry players tending to prefer more high-tech methods.

Canada’s two biggest pipeline firms say they don’t have dogs as a regular part of their leak-detection arsenal.

TransCanada spokesperson Mark Cooper says the company has many overlapping methods to detect leaks. “While dogs aren’t a regular part of our multi-layered strategy, the use of canine sniffing is something that we recognize as a legitimate tool that can be added to supplement our toolbox in certain situations,” he says.

“We’d obviously note that dogs are used around the world as an integrated part of security at major international airports and it is certainly not surprising to see their keen senses being applied to many other uses.”

Enbridge spokesperson Graham White says the company’s existing leak detection methods are “proven and effective.” Among other things, Enbridge uses computer-based monitoring, aerial and ground patrols and acoustic devices.

Mistafa gets his dogs from rescue organizations. He’s on the lookout for raw talent.

“I compare the dogs to the Wayne Gretzky of hockey players. You didn’t have to teach Wayne Gretzky or Gordie Howe all that much. It was natural to them and that’s what I look for in a dog – something that’s natural,” he said.

A “driven” personality is also important.

“If I hid a ball, they won’t just go crazy looking in the room looking for a ball. They actually will be very studious in looking all areas for this ball,” says Mistafa.

“If a dog can do that on his own, then that’s perfect. That’s the personality I want.”