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An important conservation role for sniffer detection dogs

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Nicholas Carlile, Senior Research Scientist for Threatened Island Fauna in the NSW Office for Environment and Heritage, tracks down the role sniffer dogs have in protecting threatened species like seabirds. Dogs have been used for hunting for millennia, not only for their brilliant sense of smell but also because they co-exist with humans and can be trained. Dogs can retrieve prey, flush prey out or even bring prey down, a stunning animal to have working. Even in WWII dogs were given animal VCs for their efforts in sniffing out humans caught in bomb-blasted buildings in the Blitz in Britain.

It has taken us this long to get dogs involved in the management of threatened wildlife, particularly seabirds. Indeed, New Zealand has been using detector dogs for almost 20 years to manage threatened species and to help remove pest species in conservation programs. Nicholas Carlile went to a wildlife management conference in 2003 and then flew out to the Chatham Islands (900km east of New Zealand) to see detector dogs, trained by Steve Sawyer, where the dogs were used on the very rare Taiko petrel. Nine years later Steve and his sniffer dogs were used in the Fiji petrel conservation program.

Then another Steve, this time Steve Austin, was looking to train dogs for the Macquarie Island eradication program, but had nowhere to test if the dogs would impact seabirds as well as rabbits. He took his dogs to Broughton Island where an eradication program was underway. His dogs worked alongside penguins and shearwaters, ignoring them in favour of rabbits. Steve had also been training dogs for the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service (AQIS) and was interested in using dogs for conservation. One of his dogs, Eco, was used by Lisa O’Neill from the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service as it was trained to locate fox dens, live cats and penguins. The main feature of such dogs is that they are incredibly well-behaved and only do what they are told, imperative when working in bush environments. Earlierin 2015 Eco was successfully trained by Nicholas Carlile to detect petrel scent (Gould’s petrels are turning up on NSW south coast islands) locating their burrows from as far as 50m away. Eco was also used for a cat-finding task near Uluru and a fox den task for the Manly penguin colony which recently lost 26 birds. Unfortunately, at Manly, Eco ate a 1080 meat bait that was not buried and died as a consequence. Using dogs in this way relies on skilled operators. A skilled operator and a well-trained detector dog are an unbeatable combination, a great tool for conservation because they save so much time and effort. If the wind is in the right direction and the humidity is right (a heavy air that is holding the scent) a dog can cover 100m in its zig zag search, which is more efficient than transmitters on birds. In New Zealand there is one person who just trains detector dogs, a result of high demand. The process for training detector dogs is being tightened in NSW with strict approval procedures based on the New Zealand ones. This is to ensure that the dog is correctly trained and that the operator is trained to get the best out of the dog. While Steve Austin does run a few dogs it needs individuals (like Nicholas and Lisa) to undertake the managing of such working dogs, a long-term commitment.

Detector dogs are used in other Australian states as people realise that the right combination of dog and handler is a fantastic tool in the management of threatened species and pest species. They have an amazing cognitive ability to focus on a scent without being distracted and then showing humans the detected locations. The dogs takes these actions because they enjoy the rewards they receive plus they enjoy being with their handlers. Eco, for instance, taught herself to get released from her run whenever washing was being hung on the line, a reward. Incredibly, she would return to the gate of the run when she heard the Hills hoist being wound up, a sign that the clothes’ hanging was finished. Like their other detective work, sniffer dogs get their just rewards.

Nicholas Carlile was interviewed by Ruby Vincent for A Question of Balance. Summary text by Victor Barry September 2015.

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