E-scential Workers: Dogs who support conservation efforts

E-scential Workers: Dogs who support conservation efforts

While Woody may look cute, the jagdterrier/border terrier cross is a weapon in the woods. Working alongside his Department of Conservation (DOC) handler, Miriam Ritchie, the Conservation Dog hunts out weasels, stoats and ferrets in reserves around the Kapiti Coast. Specially trained to recognise that mustelid musk, and to indicate their presence but not to kill them, the successful work of dogs like Woody have launched similar approaches to pest control all over the country. 

It’s all down to their incredible noses. With up to 300 million scent receptors, compared to the mere 6 million receptors of a human, dogs can be trained to indicate the presence of a range of biosecurity threats. Once a dog has indicated the presence of an unwanted visitor, DOC workers or volunteers can set traps in a targeted area to catch the culprit in its tracks.

Richard Robbins of Project Island Song says the skill of conservation dogs and their handlers is “absolutely stunning.” The seven island sanctuaries in Ipipiri / Bay of Islands, use a team of Conservation Dogs nicknamed ‘The Rat Pack’ as one of the first lines of defence when a pest incursion is detected. 

Even though they are highly trained, the dogs are muzzled to avoid any chance encounters with birdlife.

“The conservation dogs come on a quarterly basis and are specially trained to sniff out a certain species. Visitors and volunteers can sight pests too, and we ask people to report anything spotted. At that stage we’ll get a conservation dog into the area to investigate further.” With dogs trained to detect rodents, mustelids and cats, the islands have been pest-free since 2009, in part due to the hard work of The Rat Pack.

Even though they are highly trained, the dogs are muzzled to avoid any chance encounters with birdlife. They are the only dogs allowed on the islands and are trained to sniff out everything from rodents to Argentine ants. Pest detection dogs are most useful in places where pest numbers are very low, as they are able to sniff out even a single unwanted creature and pinpoint the right spot for a trap. One such dog at Orokonui Ecosanctuary near Dunedin located the nest of a stoat which had taken out the sanctuary’s entire saddleback population, putting a stop to its egg and chick stealing party.

While Woody and his friends are working hard, our native wildlife is able to thrive and grow unheeded by introduced pests, which can destroy ecosystems, raid nests and damage important food sources. These very good boys and girls are well respected members of the DOC team, and we think they are well deserving of many bellyrubs and treats – or whatever reward they love best. After all, every dog has its quirks!

Conservation dogs