Certified Koala detection dogs

OWAD Environment owns and handles two professional scent detection dogs, 'Taz' and 'Nutmeg'.
The dogs and their handlers Alex & Olivia are certified by the Australian Canine Detection Certification Council (Conservation Division), the only national body for assessment and certification of professional conservation dog teams.

  • Taz is certified for Koala scats and Quoll scats (Northern, Eastern and Spotted-tailed Quoll).
  • Nutmeg is certified for Koala scats.

Above: Taz (left) and Nutmeg (right) in their work gear

Taz and Nutmeg are Working English Springer Spaniels auntie and niece. They and the handlers are trained and coached by professional scent detection dog expert Steve Austin. In the field they are identified with a red 'detection dog' jacket and are tracked with a Garmin dog tracking collar that is paired to the handler's handled GPS unit. They work primarily off leash (when safe) and regularly cover 20km a day or more actively searching for target scats. They do not indicate on any other animals' scats that are not their target. They do not bark at or chase any wildlife (native or feral) or stock we encounter. They both indicate with a passive indication i.e. nose on scat, wait for the handler and help the handler recover the scat. They are kept under control at all times using an Acme dog whistle.

The videos below show how we operate the dogs in the field.

Left: Taz & Nutmeg in action on a project in January 2017. Right: Taz in action on various projects in 2016.

We primarily use Taz and Nutmeg on projects with a Koala habitat conservation purpose. We occasionally use them where the purpose is to ensure the safety of Koalas.

Professional conservation dogs are gaining an increasing amount of support & endorsement in Australia:

  • The CDCC (Conservation Division), a national system for assessment and accreditation of professional conservation dogs and handlers, was officially launched in September 2017 and is gaining increasing support and endorsement by State and Federal Governments. The CDCC is the only national system for assessment and accreditation of professional conservation dog teams. (For more information visit
  • Koala detection dogs are listed as one of the recognised surveys methods in the EPBC Act referral guidelines for Koalas.
  • The NSW Government specifically requires CDCC certified Koala detection dog teams for some NSW Government based projects.

For our Koala studies, OWAD Environment teams up with WildDNA at Federation University Australia. Samples of Koala scats our dogs find are sent to the expert laboratory, and the scats are analysed for DNA profiling, gender identification, and health screening. See flyer below for more information on Koala scat analyses.

Why use Koala detection dogs?

The answer is simple: they do a far better job than humans, and are much quicker too. They are a very powerful tool that results in a significantly improved use of the limited funds typically available for wildlife studies.

How long can you work in a day / in a week?

Professional conservation dogs have outstanding drive & focus and have exceptional endurance. They can work full days, 5 to 6 days a week, over consecutive weeks. Our dogs cover up to 100km a week actively searching for target scats.

How can you tell when your dog has found a Koala scat?

When Taz and Nutmeg find a Koala scat, they lie down nose on the scat, wait for the handler to come close then help the handler retrieve it. If the handler can't find the scat straight away, they help with her nose, mouth and paws. Once the handler has retrieved at least one Koala scat, the dog is rewarded (play based reward only - no food reward). See pictures below.

Above right: Taz indicating and helping the handler retrieve a Koala scat. Right: the Koala scat once brought up to the surface by Taz.

But dog attacks are a threat to Koalas. Isn't it risky to use dogs in Koala habitat?

No. Professional, CDCC certified wildlife detection dogs are 100% safe. They are desensitized to wildlife from a very young age. They do not chase or bark at any wildlife, and for some animals that may be a danger to them (e.g. snakes) they are trained to recognise them in advance and stay clear of them.

When we come across live Koalas during the course of our surveys, our dogs do not investigate them or the tree they are in. They do not bark at, stare or show any kind of interest in Koalas whatsoever.

A dog has hair that seed pods can attach to, what about the risk of spreading weeds?

Spreading unwanted seed pods can have a disastrous impact and OWAD Environment is extremely conscious of this. Just like all our other equipment (shoes, clothing, vehicle etc.), we check the dogs regularly throughout the day and remove seeds as necessary. Seeds removed from the dogs and all other equipment are disposed of appropriately following best practice. We also clip our dogs' coats as required to minimise the amount of seed pods that become attached to them.

What about snakes and poisoned baits that could be a risk for your dogs?

The health and wellbeing of our dogs is paramount.

Professional conservation dogs are specifically trained to not take or investigate any food items (carcasses, food scraps, baits etc) they come across. They are also trained to recognise snakes before reaching them, and actively avoid them.

Additionally, we identify and avoid working in high risk areas:

  • For snakes, we always proceed with caution in high risk areas and if need be, we flush out areas by foot before searching with the dogs.
  • For poisoned baits, prior to any field work we conduct a thorough risk assessment. Each project must successfully pass the poisoned bait risk assessment for fieldwork to proceed.

How efficient are you dogs?

In controlled trials conducted across 50 sites in real field conditions, Taz & Olivia found Koala scats at 4 times more sites than humans alone searching those same areas.

If there is even a single Koala scat in the environment that the dogs can perceive, they will find it.

When OWAD Environment works in areas where the dogs fail to find Koala scats, we perform random Quality Assurance tests to ensure that the negative results are a true negative (as opposed to a false negative). This consists in a third party hiding Quality Control Koala scats, without the handler knowing when or where a QA test may be undertaken. The Field Assistant however does know, and records the time it takes the dog/handler team to find and recover the QC scat. The dog/handler have a maximum time of 5 minutes to find the QC scats within 100 metres or so. To date, OWAD Environment has never failed a QA test. In the event a QA test is failed however, works would stop immediately to try and identify then remediate the cause for failure before works can resume.

Do you train the detection dogs yourselves? Where do the dogs come from?

We did not perform the core training of our dogs. Steve Austin, a world-renowned expert in professional detection dog and handling expert and one of Australia's few CCPDT certified trainers, performed the core training of our dogs. We had to undergo core training with him too in order to be allowed to take ownership of our dogs.

As the owners and accredited handlers of our dogs, we are responsible for the ongoing development of our dogs. Steve Austin follows us and provides ongoing assistance when need be.

Similarly to any other type of highly specialised, successful professional working dog, most CDCC certified conservation dogs come from working lines of professional scent detection dogs.

Taz and Nutmeg are Wrangham, a prestigious line of working English Springer Spaniels. Many of their family members are successful conservation dogs in Australia going back several generations, working on the conservation of an array of native species.

What does it take to be a professional conservation dog handler?

When it comes to working on threatened species (whether flora or fauna), we strongly believe it is paramount to first be a specialist in the target species. Indeed our work has immediate impacts on the species in question, hence it is crucial to have an excellent understanding of the ecology, management requirements and survey design specific for the target species. In this regard, just like for any type of environmental work in Australia or New Zealand, we strongly recommend anyone working on the management of threatened species be a Certified Environmental Practitioner (CEnvP) (Environmental Institute of Australia and New Zealand).

In addition, professional detection canine training and handling should be sought from a suitably qualified, certified and experience scent detection dog trainer. Best practice is to seek such training from a CCPDT accredited dog trainer specialised in scent detection. The CCPDT is the only international body for certification of professional dog trainers. You can search the CCPDT directory to find the list of all accredited trainers in your country. You will then need to contact them directly to find out whether they are specialised in scent detection.

Once you have obtained CEnvP certification and identified a suitable CCPDT dog trainer, you should refer to the CDCC and check the assessment requirements to ensure you will be ready for the tests and obtain certification.

Additionally, you will need to ensure you have all the necessary scientific licences, animal ethics committee approvals and any other permits as required for the geographical areas you intend to work in.

What is the role of the handler?

The role of the handler is critical. The handler of any professional conservation dog is someone who has undergone highly specialised professional training by a suitably qualified trainer, and the handler has demonstrated that they are suitable for professional handling of such dogs.

As handlers, we have two crucial roles:

  • Ensure the ongoing training and development of our dogs; and
  • Ensure the safety and wellbeing of our dogs at all times.

The handler is in charge of ensuring the dog is and remains in top condition all year round, physically, mentally, and in terms of the training. Very regular training ensures the dog's abilities & work ethics remains at top condition throughout its working life.

Finally, the role of a conservation dog handler is also to design surveys that are appropriate for the target species, and adapted to the technique of working with a detection dog. Indeed, the sole fact of working with a dog does not constitute a guarantee: survey design is critical in ensuring the survey is conducted appropriately for the target species and for the detection dog method. Put crudely, conservation dogs are a tool to assist experts in the field, just like we use GPS units and other pieces of equipment. And just like any fancy piece of equipment, the mere fact of having one is insufficient: knowing how to operate it is the true value.

Is any dog suitable to be trained as a conservation dog?

The short answer: no.
Just like any dog is not suitable to be a successful police dog, a seeing eye dog or a sheep dog.

Like any type of professional working dog, only very few dogs are suitable for conservation work. In most cases, successful scent detection dogs have been bred for the task for generations. Some breeds are more suited than others, and within those breeds some bloodlines are more suited than others.

In Taz's and Nutmeg's case, they both come from a working line of English Springer Spaniels that have been bred for wildlife detection since the 1800s (initially in the UK to retrieve injured birds). The 'top of the cream' of this bloodline was brought to Australia a few decades ago, and many of Taz's and Nutmeg's family members are successful professional conservation dogs going back several generations, including the famous dogs that saved Macquarie Island. Working Springer Spaniels are particularly suited for conservation work because they were specifically bred to NOT chase and kill their target - but to find, retrieve and bring back with a 'soft mouth' the birds that the hunter had shot (soft mouth because the bird was to be eaten by humans hence the hunters did not want the birds to be ridden with punctures from the dog's teeth.) They would fetch and bring the bird back to the handler in exchange for a play with the handler. They purposely and inherently have an extremely low food drive (so as not to eat the bird when the breed was originally created), but an extremely high play drive and a particularly strong bond with their owner. They are still today used for bird hunting in many countries. They are also renowned for their very soft nature, outstanding obedience, and exceptional drive and endurance. All these traits make this breed particularly suited for conservation work in Australia, with typically lots of kilometres to cover in amongst teaming wildlife.


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Page last updated on 22 April 2017.