Vessel the leak detection dog

July 17, 2023
Rescued as a puppy, Vessel the leak detection dog excelled at training to be a service animal to inmates in prison, but then her true calling was discovered, and her life as a water utility celebrity began.

Does your utility have an employee that completely changed the water industry and sparked investment into new technology by dozens of other utilities across the US? Central Arkansas Water (CAW) does, and her salary is only a bowl of kibble every day and a few rounds of fetch with an old tennis ball when she has earned them.

Meet Vessel, the nation’s first water leak detection dog.

Vessel joined the CAW team in 2019. In only four years she has become a great example of what looking at issues through a different lens can do. Vessel is an old-school approach to solving a high-tech issue that almost all utilities face — the search for nonrevenue water.

The story of CAW’s most unlikely, and probably most unconventional employee began in a field in Louisiana. There, Vessel was found abandoned in a cardboard box with her brothers and sisters. She was just a young pup, and her rescue was recorded for the world to see on the television show Pit Bulls and Parolees.

After being rescued, she was ultimately brought into Arkansas to become part of the Paws in Prison program. This program pairs canine companions with inmates, and those inmates train the dogs on basic commands like sit, stay and fetch. Vessel was placed at the Tucker Maximum Security Unit in Southeast Arkansas. After it was determined that she had a high drive and potential to become a service dog, she was transferred to the Randall L. Williams Correctional Facility in Pine Bluff.

At the Williams Unit this unassuming dog with a high drive was identified as a potential water leak detection dog. Two volunteers with the Paws in Prison program, Carrie Kessler and Tracy Owen, spoke with CAW’s CEO Tad Bohannon about potentially bringing a leak detection dog to central Arkansas.

Bohannon had first heard of the concept while studying at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. A utility there brought in a cocker spaniel as a leak detection dog in 2018, and Bohannon was intrigued by the idea.

“I thought it was a great concept because, like many other utilities, we are constantly working to reduce our nonrevenue water rate,” Bohannon said. “Even if we knew where the water was, it took so much time for our employees to go out and look for the water and test it to ensure it was ours.”

This is where a leak detection dog can make the biggest impact. These service dogs utilize their keen sense of smell to trigger treated water thanks to the chlorine in it. Vessel can find leaks that haven’t even surfaced yet because she can smell the chlorine making its way to the surface. Because she’s only sniffing for chlorine, she will walk right past any groundwater or non-treated water that she encounters.

Vessel left the Paws in Prison program and spent the next several months with Kessler and Owen, who trained her to locate chlorine.

There is a process for her every time she is going to work. First she puts on her working vest, a simple blue harness. Once this harness goes on, she knows it’s time to go to work.

Next, her handler, CAW water leak detection specialist Tyler Boykin, would rub some non-chlorinated well water or bottled water on her nose or mouth to reset her senses. Then, when commanded to “find leak,” Vessel goes to work, sniffing all around for the smell of chlorine. If she finds something, she stops and looks back at Boykin, who commands her to “show me,” and she barks and lies down at the spot where she found something.

“It is amazing to work with her, because she’ll surprise you every day,” Boykin said.

Her reward for a job well done is a round of fetch with a tennis ball. This “ball drive” is one reason why Vessel is so good as a service dog in this industry. Other service dogs, like PTSD comfort dogs, are expected to maintain a certain demeanor around their owners to ensure a calm, trusted environment. Vessel was identified as a high-drive dog because she wants to move and work. She doesn’t have the demeanor to always remain calm, but she does have an incredible drive to work and succeed and then be rewarded. Successful detection means it’s time to play ball!

When Vessel is not out running easements or searching hard-to-reach areas for water leaks, she’s at home with Boykin or cruising around central Arkansas in her custom truck with her picture on the side. One of the most amazing things about her demeanor is that she knows she is a celebrity in the industry and loves having her picture taken or going out to meet school kids.

“Vessel is a wonderful ambassador for CAW,” Bohannon said. “She is an absolute rock star.” WW

About the Author

Douglas Shackelford

Douglas Shackelford is the director of public affairs and communications for Central Arkansas Water