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Certified Koala detection dogs

OWAD Environment owns and handles certified professional detection dogs.
The dogs and their handlers Alex & Olivia are certified by the Canine Detection Certification Council (Conservation Division), the Australian body for assessment and certification of professional conservation dog teams. Our dogs are certified for Koala scat. Additionally, Taz is also certified for Quoll scat (Spotted-tailed, Northern and Eastern Quoll).


Above: Taz (left) and Missy (right)

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 a handled GPS unit. They work primarily off leash (when safe) and typically cover anywhere from 5km to 20km+ of per day in search for their target scent (amount of ground covered varies according to conditions, travel time between sites, 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. 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 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.

Where further understanding is desired above and beyond presence/absence data, OWAD Environment teams up with WildDNA a specialist laboratory at Federation University Australia (formerly known as Monash University). Samples of fresh Koala scats are collected and sent to the expert laboratory to obtain the unique DNA profile of each individual sampled, their gender, and health status (Chlamydia and KoRV). This provides information on population health, population structure, genetic diversity, gene flow etc, that are crucial for effective conservation. See flyer below for more information on Koala scat analyses. This recent scientific development has revolutionised Koala ecology: it provides information that is key for effective decision-making and provides this information at significantly lower costs than the alternative method that requires catching animals and taking tissue/blood samples. This scat-based method is more ethical because non-invasive, and is also more effective at sampling larger numbers of individuals.

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?

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 their target odour, they lie down nose on the 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 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 includes delivering them a tennis ball and may also include a belly rub or a pat. 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. 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 Koalas 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, the dogs are put back on leash and either taken back to the vehicle or tied to a tree downwind from the Koala. Some Koalas can occasionally be stressed by the presence of us humans though, as we humans will typically perform a visual health check hence we display interest in the individual. When a Koala shows signs of discomfort due to the presence of humans (e.g. climbing higher up the tree, staring at us, moving the other side of the trunk), we move away immediately and leave it in peace.

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 between each site. We also clip our dogs' coats as necessary 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 our poisoned bait risk assessment in order for fieldwork to proceed.

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

How efficient are you dogs?

In controlled trials conducted in real field conditions, Taz & Olivia found Koala scats at almost 400% 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 our 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. To date, no Quality Control has ever failed.)
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 & handling expert and one of Australia's few CCPDT certified trainers, performed the core training of our dogs. He selected and trained our dogs. Our dogs are purpose-bred from long lines of successful field detection dogs. Dogs begin training from pups and typically start being deployed in the field from about 15-18 months of age.

We handlers were also trained by Steve Austin and underwent intensive professional training, both theoretical and practical. We only start handling a dog once Steve gives us the all-clear to do so. As the owners and certified handlers of our dogs, we are responsible for the ongoing development of our dogs. Steve provides continued support and coaching as necessary for the lifetime of our dogs.

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, praised 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 work with a detection dog stems out of an IDENTIFIED NEED.

In Australia, any kind of professional ecological work requires a number of scientific 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 to obtain all the required permits & licences as required by your State. Also check with your local government as some local Councils also have additional formal 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 of threatened species. Therefore it is highly desirable to have an excellent understanding of the ecology and management needs of the target species, as well as survey design requirements that are appropriate for the target species. In this regard, just like for any type of environmental work in Australia or New Zealand, we strongly recommend to select a certified conservation dog handler that is 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 for conservation detection work?

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 depending on the task at hand, 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 15 December 2017.