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Certified Koala detection dogs

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

  • Our dogs are certified for Koala scat;
  • At any time, at least one dog is certified for Quoll scat (Spotted-tailed, Northern and Eastern Quoll indiscriminately).


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

Our detection dogs are Working English Springer Spaniels. They and we 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 typically search anywhere from 5km to 20km+ of transect per day (depending on terrain, findings, vegetation structure etc). 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 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 work on projects that have a conservation purpose. We occasionally work on projects where the purpose is animal welfare (e.g. ensure the safety of individual Koalas).

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

  • The CDCC (Conservation Division), the national system for assessment and accreditation of professional conservation dogs and handlers, was officially launched in September 2016 and is gaining increasing support and endorsement by State and Federal Governments. (For more information visit www.cdcc.com.au.)
  • 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 some of our Koala studies, OWAD Environment teams up with WildDNA at Federation University Australia. Samples of fresh Koala scats are collected and sent to the expert laboratory, where the scats are analysed for DNA profiling, gender identification, and health screening. See flyer below for more information on Koala scat analyses. This recent scientific development has revolutionised Koala ecology: it provides information that is crucial for effective decision-making and provides this information at significantly lower cost than the alternative method (catch animals and take tissue/blood samples). This new method is also more ethical because non-invasive (no need to capture animals), and is also more effective at sampling large numbers of individuals.

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 can cover up to 100km per week actively searching for target scats.

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

When our dogs find a target 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 given its 'bridge' and is then rewarded. The 'reward package' may include play / pats / vocal praise (depending on what the dog likes). NO FOOD IS USED IN THE 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, 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 well 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. Because they display absolutely no interest in live Koalas, the Koalas are likewise entirely disinterested in our detection dogs.
However, human presence can stress some Koalas. As a result, OWAD Environment is always extremely careful around live Koalas; we keep a safe distance away, try to remain downwind from the individual if possible, and if the Koala shows any sign of discomfort (e.g. climb higher up tree) we move away immediately.

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. Weed management measures are included in our Field Health Safety & Environment Plan, and implemented on every single project. Just like all our other equipment (shoes, clothing, vehicle etc.), we check the dogs and their work jackets regularly throughout the day, and remove seeds/vegetation as necessary. Seeds/or any vegetation that has become attached is removed from the dogs and all other equipment in between each site. Weeds (or their seeds) are disposed of appropriately following best practice guidelines. We also clip our dogs' coats in key areas so as 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 in advance, and actively avoid them.

However, due to the potency of poisoned baits, the first control is always to conduct a thorough risk assessment. Each project must successfully pass the poisoned bait risk assessment for fieldwork to proceed.

All projects must go through a H&S risk assessment before OWAD Environment can confirm the feasibility if the project.

How efficient are you dogs?

In controlled trials conducted across 50 sites in real field conditions, Taz & Olivia found Koala scats at 357% more times 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 during all fieldwork with the detection dogs. This ensures that the dog/handler teams always performs at 100%, and ensures that the field results are reliable and reflective of the true site conditions. (In the event a QC test is failed, works would stop immediately to (1) identify the cause for failure of the QC test then (2) remediate the cause for failure and (3) once remediated and a further QC test is passed, works can resume.)
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 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 also underwent an initial core training with Steve in order to be allowed to take ownership of our first dog.

As the owners and certified handlers of our dogs, we are responsible for the ongoing development of our dogs. Steve Austin follows us and provides ongoing assistance in the continuous development of our dogs, and us as handlers.

Similarly to any other type of highly specialised, successful professional working dog, certified conservation dogs come from working breed lines of professional scent detection dogs. Our dogs come from prestigious lines of Working English Springer Spaniels, renowned around the world for their outstanding skills and abilities. Many of their family members are successful conservation dogs 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?

Like any other type of detection work, choosing to employ a detection dog comes out of an IDENTIFIED NEED.

In Australia, any kind of work or study of flora or fauna requires a number of permits and licences. Additionally, using live animals for science is regulated under the Australian Code for the Care and Use of Animals for Scientific Purposes. Before anything, you will therefore need all the necessary permits & licences to work as required by your State. Also check with your local government as some local Councils also have scientific permitting requirements.

When it comes to working on threatened species (whether flora or fauna), we strongly believe it is crucial to first and foremost be a specialist in the threatened species. Indeed our work has immediate impacts on the species in question, and can determine the very fate of individuals or populations. Therefore it is paramount to have an excellent understanding of the ecology, management requirements and survey design requirements specific to 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 should 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.

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

The short answer: no.

Just like any other type of highly specialised canines (e.g. seeing eye dogs, police drug detection dogs, army explosives dogs), only very few dogs are suitable for field detection work in conservation.

In most cases and regardless of the sector they work in, most successful scent detection dogs have been bred for the task for generations. Some breeds are more suited than others, and within those breeds some lines are more suited than others.

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). 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 their target - but to find, retrieve and bring back with a 'soft mouth' 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 ridden with punctures marks.) 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, desire to please their handlers, and exceptional 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.