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A Nose for Conservation

Emma and her dog Mojo. While Mojo is not looking for threatened species herself, she will be mother to a new generation of conservation dogs with some of her puppies expected to work in Melbourne Zoo’s threatened species program. Credit: Leah Denadic

Emma and her dog Mojo. While Mojo is not looking for threatened species herself, she will be mother to a new generation of conservation dogs with some of her puppies expected to work in Melbourne Zoo’s threatened species program. Credit: Leah Denadic

By Emma Bennett

Conservationists are recruiting dogs (and their owners) to detect rare species like tiger quolls as well as invasive pests and weeds, but how reliable are they?

Dogs have been helping the police, the army and Customs officers find things that are hard to find for many years. However, it has only been in the past 15 or so years that environmental scientists have really begun to take advantage of dogs and their superior noses. Across the world dogs are now being used to help conservation efforts in a number of ways. From tracking gorillas in the jungle, whales in the ocean and ants under rocks, dogs are proving useful for rare species surveys particularly where home ranges are large or where other techniques are inadequate.

New Zealand has been leading the world in the use of conservation detection dogs. Detection dogs are an essential component of kiwi and kakapo recovery programs as well as finding that last rodent or invasive ant as part of eradication programs on offshore islands. Australia has dogs trained to detect threatened species including marsupials, frogs, bats, lizards and birds. In addition to native species, dogs have been trained to find invasive animals such cane toads, fire ants, feral cats, foxes, rodents, rabbits, and even invasive plants like hawkweed.

I began working with dogs in 2005 to help find bats with my German short-haired pointer Elmo as a part-time job while I studied for my ecology degree at the University of Melbourne. Following Elmo’s retirement in 2012, I began working with other teams of conservation detection dogs to assess their performance and to help other scientists use scent dogs to solve environmental problems. In 2017 I began a PhD with Monash University evaluating the effectiveness of detection dogs in the search for rare species.

A major component of my studies is to develop a decision matrix to help land managers and researchers work out whether detection dogs can help them to achieve their conservation aims. Part of this involves understanding the cost and effort of engaging a detection dog.

There are many different models of dog use around the world. Some companies can provide a fully trained dog to purchase, some companies supply handlers with dogs, and there are individuals with trained dogs who can be contracted for specific projects.

Conservation projects are often tightly budgeted, and a fully trained dog from a private company can be too expensive for some organisations. The not-for-profit Conservation Ecology Centre in Cape Otway, Victoria, has come up with a unique approach to bypass these upfront costs through a novel method that appears to be a world-first for conservation.

Twice each month, volunteers and their pet dogs have been gathering at the Conservation Ecology Centre to meet dog trainer Luke Edwards and learn the art of scent detection. The Ecology Centre is focused on finding the elusive tiger quoll, which was rediscovered in the park in 2012. It is hoped that by training volunteers to find quoll scats, “quollified” volunteers and their dogs will increase opportunities to detect evidence of this species. Motion-sensitive cameras and human searches have so far failed to deliver the information needed about the tiger quoll in the Otway Ranges National Park, and several years of searching by volunteer dogs has also found very little evidence.

The Otway Ranges National Park covers more than 100,000 hectares, and each volunteer is searching just 1 hectare per month. While this doesn’t seem like much, the 60 or so hectares searched each year is 60 hectares more than the Conservation Ecology Centre can search without the volunteer dog program.

So if they are not finding any evidence of tiger quolls, does that mean there are none there? How do we know that the dogs are not missing something? That’s where I come in.

Testing the performance of a conservation detection dog is tricky. There are a lot of variables in the natural environment: the wind changes, the vegetation varies and some dogs like hot weather while others prefer it cold.

As part of my PhD I am evaluating the performance of not just the volunteer dogs but also the professionally trained and handled dogs, some of which come with a six-figure price tag. The volunteers are undergoing the same rigour of testing as professional working dogs by examining three major components of performance: reliability, accuracy and efficiency. Reliability informs us if the dog is looking for the correct scent (and not something else), accuracy is a measure of how many they find and how much they miss, while efficiency is about speed and how long it takes the dog to do the task.

Preliminary testing of the volunteers has already been undertaken, and the results are encouraging. Many of the dogs are 100% reliable and have comparable accuracy and efficiency to professional dogs I have tested.

Testing is evaluated in three stages, by testing at small scales, large scales and during actual field surveys. Testing has commenced at small and large scales, and field testing will occur later in 2018. The final results of all three stages of testing will be available in 2019.

Understanding the role and usefulness of detection dogs in conservation programs is essential for good decision-making. Knowing whether budgets should be allocated to engage a professional dog full-time or a team of volunteers and their pets for weekend searches depends on the objectives of the program.

For now, though, I am happy that I get to meet so many different dogs and have lots of cuddles each time I go to work. I am also inspired by the dedication and passion of the volunteers who train their dogs and help with the efforts to find the tiger quoll.

In 2017 the Australian Conservation Dog Network formed at the Sunshine Coast University. This brings together industry professionals, academics and dog handlers from all over Australia, and allows us to develop standards and processes to ensure the safe and efficient use of dogs in the environment sector.


Emma Bennett is a PhD candidate at Monash University’s School of Biological Sciences.