Meet the water detectives - how one man and his dogs are searching for leaks in Lancashire

Luke Jones and his dogs will be busy hunting in Lancashire over the next few weeks.

By Fiona Finch
Thursday, 8th October 2020, 8:56 am

Their quest is an unlikely one - to discover underground water leaks. These can't of course be seen, but if you're a very capable canine, specially trained for the task, it's all in a day's work.

Luke Jones and business partner Ross Stephenson from CAPE SPC have pioneered a new kind of water discovery, training their dogs to sniff out hints of chlorine from water leaking from hidden mains supply pipes and so save vast amounts of water being wasted.

Recently there was cause for much celebration when newly trained recruit, one year old springer spaniel Kilo, proved to be a top talent saving 72,000 litres of water a day after finding a hidden leak in a field in Bassenthwaite in Cumbria.

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Luke pictured with Denzel and Kilo (photo: Stuart Walker)

Luke,29, said: “So far he has been shadowing older dog Denzel and learning the ropes, so to speak. This is the first leak Kilo has found by himself and it was a big one. When Kilo did his first full job I was over the moon - it’s very rewarding.”

Meanwhile Denzel, also a springer spaniel, discovered a monster leak near Lancaster, which was running at 0.5 litres a second, amounting to more than 43,000 litres a day – enough to serve 140 homes.

Luke will be searching the Hodder Aqueduct in the Bowland and Clitheroe areas over the next few weeks.

He said: "We get the mapping system and see where they are and I’ll go through line by line. I mainly search rural areas - there’s no limit as long as the pipes run through fields.”

Denzel at work (photo: Stuart Walker)

How did they discover and build on their dogs' special skills which help both the water companies and the environment?

The unusual answer is that searching for bed bugs proved a pivotal career launch pad for Luke.

He had been a dog trainer in the Royal Army Veterinary Corps (RAVC) and was used to training dogs for demanding tasks ranging from search and attack duties to finding explosives.

After leaving the army he got a job involving dogs again - this time dogs were searching out vermin such as bed bugs.

Extraordinary dog Denzel on water search duty (photo: Stuart Walker)

He did not know 35 year old Ross in his army days, even though both served as dog trainers in the same regiment. But a mutual army friend put them in contact.

Luke said: "When I left the army me and Ross saw a business opportunity and we set our business up."

To begin with their business was focused solely on using dogs to detect bed bugs in hotels and other housing.

But they were looking for other projects too and learned that a similar service in Australia was being trialled. Luke said: "The water corporation in Australia had literally been developing it for a month."

Luke with Kilo, whose full kennel name is Achelous, after the ancient Greek god of fresh water (photo: Stuart Walker)

They decided to see if they could also train dogs to detect water leaking from mains pipes. Once they achieved this goal they approached United Utilities and conducted a six month research and development project with them. This was followed by a two year contract and in July they signed up for another three year contract.

Now their work takes them all over the region from Carlisle to Crewe and further afield too. Ross is currently working with dog Snipe, a sprocker spaniel, for Thames Water. Their company has also worked for Scottish Water, Severn Trent and Northumbria water authorities and they have started a trial in Yorkshire.

Much training was needed to teach their dogs new skills and even more training is needed if starting from scratch with a puppy. Luke, who is originally from Wales, but now lives near Warrington, said: " You can assess the dog at a young age to see if they have the drive and characteristics of a working dog - it's never a cert."

The company has three other canine workers cocker spaniel/ labrador cross dogs Tico and Ivor who search for bed bugs and Milo, a spaniel cross rescue dog, from the Dog's Trust who is being trained.

It's once the training is over the work really begins. Luke said: "The training is the easiest part. The work is the hardest...trying to keep a dog's performance at the top."

He explained that a dog searching for a water leak in miles of open country must cope with many distractions - the scents of the field, of sheep, pheasants and other farm animals and must not be disturbed by the likes of tractors and hares.

The dogs’ noses are finely tuned to the distinctive smell of chlorine traces in tap water. Even when the leaking water never comes to the surface, the dogs can detect tiny amounts of chlorine escaping up through the ground.

Luke said: "The training environment is totally different. You can never recreate a leak...It's been one of the most difficult capabilities I've trained and one of the most difficult jobs I've done involving dogs."

Denzel took less time to train than a total newcomer to search roles, having previously worked detecting bed bugs. Luke reckons it can take some 12 -15 months for a total newcomer trainee to get match fit to be a water detective. He said: "You always look for something that motivates the dog, whether it's toys or treats. Our job is to basically make the link, for example they're looking for that scent (of chlorine) because they know that scent is the key to that ball. One they find a leak it's just massive playtime, a massive reward."

If the dogs have worked hard all day and not found anything they also get rewarded for their patient and hard work. Luke said: "If they've searched 4 km I'll reward them for that .. It doesn't mean he hasn't done his job if he doesn't find anything!"

In turn the reward for Luke and Ross comes when their new charges discover a leak for themselves.

Luke said: "The first leak (found) on their own in a natural environment. Some people might have seen me jumping in fields, shouting and screaming! It's the best feeling - you can't beat that for me."

Hannah Wardle, leakage manager at United Utilities, said: “Most water leaks never show above ground so we have to go looking for them. It is very difficult for our engineers to use their traditional “listening” techniques out in the countryside because there are very few fittings or valves for them to access the pipework. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.

"The dogs can cover large distances quickly and if they find a point of interest then we send in our human teams to double check. It’s a terrific partnership.”

Outside of work Luke reports that the super sniffer dogs are part of the family.

He said: "Outside of work they are just like our pets. They have a few more rules than my pets, but nothing crazy. Once they finish work they chill out at home with us."

* United Utilities has pledged to reduce leakage by 15 per cent over the next five years. As well as the sniffer dogs, the company uses innovative technology including 100,000 acoustic logger devices and artificial intelligence to sift through data to enable speedier recognition and pinpointing of leaks .


· Total water leakage across the north west region - 446 million litres a day

· Around two thirds of leaks are from United Utilities pipework, the other third is from private pipes

· Total length of water pipes in the region - 26,000 miles

· United Utilities says its work fixing leaks saves 11 million litres a day of water.The company plans to spend £60 million a year over the next 5 years finding and fixing leaks.

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