Certified Koala detection dogs

OWAD Environment owns and handles two professional detection dogs.
The dogs are purpose-bred professional field detection dogs, both working line English Springer Spaniels. They are professionally bred and professionally handled as working dogs from birth. For each target scent added to our dogs, their proficiency in that scent is vetted and certified by the Canine Detection Certification Council. Our dogs are certified for Koala scat and for Quoll scat (Spotted-tailed, Northern and Eastern Quoll indiscriminately).

Above: Taz (left) and Missy (right)

In the field, our dogs are identified with a red 'detection dog' jacket and they are tracked with a Garmin dog tracking collar that is paired to a handled GPS unit. They work off leash and cover 8km to 30km of per day while working (amount of ground covered varies according to conditions, study design, access etc). They do not indicate on any anything that is not a target. They do not bark at or chase any wildlife (native or feral) or stock we encounter. They indicate with a passive indication i.e. lying down 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: demonstration in October 2017. Middle: on a large project in 2017. Right: on various projects in 2016.

We primarily work on large-scale projects to inform conservation measures. However we occasionally assist in impact assessment studies.

For Koala projects, where more than simple presence/absence data is required or desirable OWAD Environment teams up with WildDNA a specialist laboratory at Federation University Australia (formerly known as Monash University). WildDNA extracts DNA from scat samples collected by OWAD Environment and provides the unique DNA profile of Koalas, gender and presence/absence of the two major pathogens that affect Koalas (Chlamydia pecorum and Koala retrovirus KoRV-A). In the near future, laboratory testing capabilities will also include determining diet from scats, as well as microbiome analysis.
Contact us to discuss which suite of tests may be required/desirable for your project.

Why use Koala detection dogs?

The answer is simple: they do a far better job than humans alone, 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. In the same time it takes human-based teams to search merely a few hundreds trees, our dogs will have searched tens of thousands of trees. Additionally, humans can often miss Koala scats in complex leaf litters whereas groundcover complexity does not affect our detection dogs' ability to find Koala scats. Their use therefore results in significantly increased confidence in results.

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

Our detection dogs are 'top shelf' working dogs. They can work full days, 5 to 6 days a week over consecutive weeks. For long survey programs e.g. 15 days or more, we typically aim to do 4 to 5 days/week. Depending on survey design, access, conditions etc they cover 8km to 30+km/day. Our current average across studies is 15km/day (>2,000km assessed over the last 3 years).

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

When our dogs find their target odour, they lie down nose on scat, wait for the handler to come then help the handler retrieve the scat. If the handler can't find the scat straight away, they help with their nose, mouth and paws. They will dig out scats that are obscured even in 1m deep leaf litter. Once the handler has retrieved at least one Koala scat, the dog is given its 'bridge' and is then rewarded. The reward includes a short play with a tennis ball. (Taz may also ask for a belly rub; Missy only wants the ball.) NO FOOD IS USED IN THE REWARD. See pictures below.

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

Above: Missy indicating on a Koala scat, holding the position waiting for the handler to bridge her.

But Koalas. often get attacked by dogs. Isn't it risky for you to work with dogs in Koala habitat?

No. Our Working Springer Spaniels are selectively bred, professionally trained and certified - they are safe around animals, and are used to working in areas teaming with wildlife. They are desensitized to wildlife from a very young age. They do not chase or bark at animals, and for some animals that may be a danger to them (e.g. snakes) they are trained to recognise them from a distance and stay well clear. They do not investigate or show any interest in any animal, dead or alive, even if that animal is a Koala. We regularly come across live Koalas, occasionally dead ones too; they do not investigate them or even look at them. Because they display no interest in Koalas, Koalas are not stressed by their presence. However, Koala welfare is always a top priority: when we spot a live Koala, we tie up the dog while we perform a quick visual health check from a distance (using binoculars) then leave the area as quickly as possible. If necessary, call a wildlife ambulance if the Koala displays clinical symptoms of disease.

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

OWAD Environment is extremely conscious of not spreading invasive species. Weed management measures are included in our Field Health Safety & Environment Plan, and implemented on every single project. Just like all our other gear & equipment (shoes, clothing, vehicle etc.), we check the dogs and their work jackets regularly throughout the day, and remove seeds/vegetation as necessary between each site. We also clip our dogs' coats as necessary to minimise the amount of weeds that become attached to them. We wear specific gaiters when working to minimise the weeds that can get attached to our legs, and the dog jackets we use are carefully selected and modified by us in key spots to also minimise weeds becoming attached to the dogs' gear.

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

The health and wellbeing of our dogs is paramount. Our dogs are trained to not take or investigate any food items (carcasses, food scraps, baits etc) while they are working. They are also trained to recognise snakes in advance and actively avoid them.

However, due to the extreme potency of poisoned baits (1080, PAPP), the first control is always to conduct a thorough risk assessment. Each project must successfully pass our poisoned bait risk assessment in order for fieldwork to proceed. This is a key requirement for every single project before we can confirm project feasibility.

How efficient are you dogs?

In controlled trials conducted in real field conditions, Taz & Olivia found Koala scats at almost 378% more sites than humans alone searching the same areas. If there is even a single Koala scat in the environment that the dogs can perceive, they will find it.

OWAD Environment has developed specific Quality Assurance / Quality Control protocols that are implemented on each project with our detection dogs. This ensures that the dog/handler team is performing at 100% and that the field results are reliable and reflective of the true site conditions; and ensure that there isn't a factor impeding the dog/handler team's abilities (e.g. environmental factor, human fatigue, etc). To date no Quality Control has ever failed, however OWAD Environment does have procedures in place in case this were to happen. If a QC test were to fail, works would stop immediately and in the following order: (1) identify the cause for failure (2) remediate the cause for failure and (3) once remediated and a further QC test is successful, work resumes. No work is performed until this sequence has been completed. Full details on our QA/QC procedures are included in our reports.

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

We are the owners and certified handlers of our detection dogs. Steve Austin, a world-renowned expert in professional detection dog & handler training, and one of Australia's few CCPDT certified trainers, trained our dogs and subsequently us. Our dogs are purpose-bred from long lines of successful field detection dogs. Steve selected our dogs for us.

As the owners and handlers of our dogs, we are responsible for the ongoing development and positive reinforcement of our dogs.

What makes your dogs so suitable for conservation detection work?

Our detection dogs come from working lines of English Springer Spaniels that have been bred for wildlife detection since the 1800s (initially in the UK to retrieve injured birds to assist hunters). Many of our dogs' 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 animals - but to find and retrieve a target with a 'soft mouth', the target initially being the bird 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 riddled with holes). Working Springer Spaniels are renowned for their extremely high play drive, their strong bond with their handlers, and their exceptional drive to work. They are still today used for bird hunting in many countries. They are also renowned for their very soft nature, outstanding obedience, endless desire to please their handlers, and exceptional endurance. All these traits make this breed particularly suited for conservation work, with typically lots of kilometres to cover in harsh terrain in amongst teaming wildlife.


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Page last updated in November 2018.