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Cane Toad Detection Dog training

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Steve Austin, professional dog trainer, outlines how dogs are trained to detect specific scents and why this work is important.
Max, a yellow Labrador retriever, is being trained by Steve to detect cane toads as part of a concerted program in Sutherland Shire efforts to remove cane toads from the Woolooware / Taren Point area.

Retrieved from a dog shelter, Max has the boundless energy and drive needed to become a so called sniffer dog.     
The basic premise for this type of training is that odour detection equals good reward, which, in Max’s case, is a frankfurt and a tennis ball. The odour detection leads to a particular behaviour. While some dog detective work would train the dog to use a bark, as in those dogs trained to locate missing persons; for Max the behaviour is a direct stare at the toad.

This is followed by the bridging words “yes”, said by Max, which ensures that Max comes to Steve to get his reward, leaving the cane toad unharmed.     
This is also important since it prevents Max coming in contact with the toad's poison which might be exuded if it were caught by the dog. Further, should Max mistake a native frog for a toad, it would not be harmed. It takes time and patience to train a dog to the required level however the constant use of the reward system narrows the choices down, until there is only one, in Max’s case that being a cane toad.

Since Max works on odour alone it is quite possible that a toad may have moved quite recently from its position, leaving the odour behind so this has to be taken into account when making the decision to reward.     
Steve has a substantial career in training odour detecting dogs including nearly ba decade as National Trainer for the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service (AQIS), training dogs to detect plants, fruit, meat, reptiles, live birds, live eggs and live bees. He still trains Tasmania’s quarantine dogs. His other work includes fox detection as well as cheetah scat detection overseas for the Cheetah Conservation Fund.

He also trains quarantine dogs for the French Caledonian government, along with training two beagles in smuggled wildlife detection at airports for the Japanese government departments.    
Closer to home each year he works in the Kimberley where he trains dogs for the Australian Wildlife Conservancy in fox and cat detection as well as training dogs to detect penguins as part of Nicholas Carlile’s work around Sydney’s North Head. To show the breadth of his work, which has mushroomed in the last two years, he is also training dogs for the rabbit eradication on Macquarie Island, a critical move now that it has been declared World Heritage by the federal and Tasmanian governments.

All the dogs are very good at locating rabbits, foxes and cats, having hundreds of years of genetics to back up their detective work. It is also a cost effective way of pest location. All the dogs are very good at locating rabbits, foxes and cats, having hundreds of years of genetics to back up their detective work. It is also a cost effective way of pest location.

Fumigating one fox warren is a far better outcome than trying to fumigate a whole property and it has less of an impact on native animals than using poisons.

Steve also uses desexed ferrets in relation to the rabbit eradication.
They are well trained and are desexed and in the wild fall easy prey to our snakes. As a result, they do not pose a potential threat to our wildlife, unlike the situation in snake free New Zealand.

Steve is doggedly determined in his work, which proves valuable to programs across the world and it is that dogged determination that transfers to his detective dogs.
His passion for Australian wildlife is reflected in his present considerable work he is generously volunteering to the cane toad control program.


All images are by Paul McQueen and were filmed during a training session with Steve Austin, Max the Wonder Dog and Larry the Cane Toad at Pet Resorts Dural.

Text: V.B. October 2010


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