How the Allison Woods Turtle Dogs Teach Children About Science

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turtle dogs

T.J. Melvin and Paige Jackson with one of the Boykin Spaniels used to locate box turtles at the Allison Woods Outdoor Learning Center. Photo by Jeffrey S. Otto

The friendly nature of the Boykin Spaniels at Statesville’s Allison Woods Outdoor Learning Center might draw visitors in, but these canines have a bigger mission.

The purebred dogs, known as Allison Woods Turtle Dogs, are trained from birth to track and retrieve Eastern Box Turtles, which is the North Carolina State Reptile. Staff at the center incorporate the turtles to teach students about turtle habitats, food-chain relationship, predator/prey relationship and how indicator species affect life in an ecosystem. Paige Jackson, education director for the center, says the kids love working with the dogs and watching them retrieve turtles, with more than one student per session exclaiming, “They found mine!” As in, the kids often identify a turtle to follow and that’s “theirs?” Needs to be a little clearer, I think.

“Hearing (that) is probably one of the best feelings in the world for the instructors and the dogs,” Jackson says. “The dogs are so passionate about what they do that praise from the kids is often times better than a treat at the end of the day.”

turtle dogs

Photo by Jeffrey S. Otto

The center served over 5,000 North Carolina public school students in the last 12 months, with more engaging every year. Jackson says their mission is to encourage all students to be good stewards of the environment.

“Children need to become more involved with the natural world around them,” she says.

The program originated in 2003 when John Rucker began noticing that his Boykin, Buster, had a knack for finding turtles during his hunting expeditions. Then, in 2014, Rucker visited the Allison Woods Center with a group of UNC Greensboro students to do research for their Herpetology Education in Rural Places and Spaces project. The project helped ignite a passion for North Carolina’s reptiles and amphibians, and spark a deeper connection to local environments. Rucker thought the center’s setting was perfect for conducting more research, so he proposed a partnership and brought some of his turtle dogs to Allison Woods.

Now, the center has two veteran dogs, 9-year-old female Snapper and 7-year-old male Watcher, to help train puppies and lead expeditions. They are joined by co-researchers Possum, a 3-year-old male, and Kizzie, a 3-year-old female, for the educational programs and research projects for organizations including the Department of Natural Resources.

turtle dogs

Photo by Jeffrey S. Otto

“Snapper and Watcher are the ‘show dogs’ of the bunch,” Jackson says. “They love to perform for the kids and proudly prance in front of them with their turtle find. Possum is very laid-back, easygoing and loves kids. He is great for taking into classrooms and libraries. Kizzie is a work in progress. She’s a wonderful turtle dog, very energetic, but works best with just her handlers.”

All the dogs are worked every day via field work during a majority of the year and with planted artificial turtles during the winter months to keep them sharp.

Training can take anywhere from one to three years, but Jackson says their line is “specifically bred to stand taller so they can easily go through brush and dense thickets,” which can help the training go faster. The Allison Woods Turtle Dogs is the only program of its kind in North Carolina, although Rucker still runs a program based out of Tennessee that aids in the location of endangered box turtle breeds throughout the U.S.

Boykin Spaniel at Allison Woods, NC

Photo by Jeffrey S. Otto

Due to its unique nature, Allison Woods welcomes about 200 field trips every year and has formed several other partnerships, including with the North Carolina Arboretum for its Box Turtle Day. During their visits, students learn about the turtles’ natural habitats, take measurements and weights of the turtles, list shell damages and help track other information related to each turtle’s health before the animals are returned to the exact GPS coordinates where they were found.

Funding for the center comes from donations, grants and fundraisers, but Jackson shares that their three-year plan includes broadening out to an additional 25 percent of area schools and after-school programs, increasing their volunteer base and offering additional summer camps.

4-H Youth Development Extension Agent for North Carolina State University Kay Bridge believes that programs like those offered at Allison Woods Center are vital.

“Nearly every aspect of our society today involves some form of STEM-related activity,” Bridge says. “We find it important to introduce youth to science and technology, engineering and math. We are also facing some real issues in our culture with preserving our environment, keeping it clean and safe for our youth, and the generations to come. Providing these programs at Allison Woods provides youth with the chance to be out in an environment many of them have never even seen before.”

Boykin Spaniel Fun Facts


● Stand about 14 to 18 inches high
● Weigh between 25 and 50 pounds
● Watcher, a veteran Turtle Dog, has found up to 17 turtles in less than four hours.
● During the winter months, when Box Turtles are hibernating, artificial turtles are used in the school programs as a “hide and seek” mission. Watcher has found up to 50 artificial turtles in less than four hours.
● The dogs can find turtles in a fraction of the time it takes humans.
● They’ve helped many organizations including the Department of Natural Resources.
● Their small mouths and soft jawbones make them perfect for safe turtle retrieval.
● Zero turtles have been harmed by Allison Woods Boykin Spaniels.

– Shawndra Russell

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