OWAD Environment’s purpose-bred threatened species detection dogs detect Koala, three species of Quolls, and two species of Underground Orchids. Our two current dogs are ‘Pink Knockout’ aka TAZ and ‘Mistral Bowscale’ aka MISSY.
No. They were purpose-bred from long lines of successful field detection dogs. Most of their relatives are professional field detection dogs or trialling champions. They were bred by a specialist breeder. Both Taz and Missy underwent ENS (Early Neurological Stimulation, dubbed the ‘Super Dog Program’) to enhance their cognitive, neurological and olfactory capabilities. At 3 months of age, they went to Steve Austin a CCPDT professional dog trainer who specialises in the conditioning and training of professional field detection dogs.
Both Alex and Olivia underwent intensive formal handler training (theory and practice) with Steve Austin when acquiring our first professional detection dog. We have sought further targeted training from Steve on a needs basis, e.g. to learn how to add new target scents to our dogs ourselves.
Both Taz and Missy are Working English Springer Spaniels. There are 7 groups of dog breeds in Australia, our dogs are Group 3 ‘Gundogs’. This group, and this breed in particular, is especially well suited for conservation work. Working Springers are renowned for their trainability, their endurance, their exceptionally high drive, and for remaining under control under whistle even when far from the handler. They do not have any inherent desire or tendency to herd or round up animals (e.g. working dogs) nor do they ‘hunt to kill’ (e.g. hounds), they tend to be innately uninterested in an animal that isn’t part of their pack, and are renowned for their ‘soft mouth’ i.e. finding and holding a delicate object without damaging it. These characteristics make them particularly suited for what we need, that working long days in hard terrain looking for small and delicate objects (scats) in vast landscapes teaming with wildlife.
They live with us, at home, and have a large custom made walk-in kennel. During the day they have access to our whole backyard and love to spend their days playing in our pool then sunbathing on the deck. They have plenty of safe chew toys to keep them entertained on days we are not working. During the night we lock them in a smaller section of our backyard where their big kennel is, with plenty of room at the back to still trot around and relieve themselves. We only lock them in the kennel at night when we are on large surveys if we see they still have too much adrenaline and aren’t actually resting at night. (They are very hype dogs with an extremely high play drive, sometimes they need a little help settling down to allow their bodies to rest.) When we do have to lock them in, they still have access to a small portion of our yard to relieve themselves. Having not been conditioned to be indoor dogs, they do not like being indoors. However, occasionally we have to bring them indoors for safety reasons e.g. when it is dangerously hot outside. In that case, we put one of their beds in our laundry room to keep them in an air-conditioned environment until the outside temperature is safe again.
Above: Taz and Missy, at home in front of their custom made kennel.
Our dogs would work 24/7 if we let them! Their drive is such that they don’t know themselves when they need to rest. It is our job as their handlers to pace them and watch out for them so they don’t burn themselves out.
The limiting factor is always us humans, who have to keep up with them with only two legs. On large-scale surveys requiring several weeks of fieldwork, we typically try and cap the survey effort at around 15km/day (=30+ha/day) on a basis of 4 to 5 days a week depending on survey length. The actual survey effort achieved of course depends on terrain, weather conditions, and study design and search protocol (and hence how much travel time between sampling sites/how much effort can we spend at each sampling site) etc.
On shorter surveys, we try and cap the dogs at 20km/day (=40+ha) but will occasionally go up to 30km/day (=60+ha) if the conditions are favourable. Note, the actual amount of ground search also depends on how much evidence there is/or isn’t in any given area: if there is lots of evidence, then we obviously stop more frequently to record data.
Our dogs work primarily off-leash, so keeping them under control is paramount for their own safety and to prevent them from accessing lands we do not have permission to access. While they are working, we keep a constant visual on them and we control them as need be with specific whistle commands.
We use an Acme dog whistle that is audible to humans. We use four main whistle commands: change direction, stop/freeze, come, and sit. The video below shows some of these whistle commands. See our Fieldwork Videos for further examples.
Our dogs’ movements are tracked in the field via a Garmin dog tracking collar which records their position at the rate of one waypoint every 2.5 seconds. This tracking collar is paired with one of our handheld GPS units.
When our dogs find a target (be it a Koala or a Quoll scat, or an Underground Orchid), they lie down nose on target and hold the indication until the handler gives them a specific ‘bridging’ cue. If the object is visually obstructed and the handler can’t find the object straight away, they may be asked to help by using their nose, mouth and paws to either expose the target / or in the case of scats, retrieve a scat with a soft mouth. Even if there is 1m deep leaf litter, they will get stuck in there and help the handler on request.
Once the handler has given the dog its bridging cue, the dog is then rewarded. The reward includes a short play with a tennis ball. Taz likes a belly rub while clenching on the ball; Missy prefers to chase and retrieve the ball. NO FOOD IS USED IN THE REWARD, and purposely so. Our dogs’ food drive is intentionally kept to a minimum, one of the ways by which minimise the risk of them eating things they shouldn’t. See pictures below for examples of our dogs indicating.
Above: Taz indicating and actively helping Alex spot a Koala scat by plucking it from under the leaf litter with a soft mouth.
Above: the Koala scat once brought up to the surface by Taz.
Above: Missy indicating on a Koala scat, holding the position and waiting for the handler to ‘bridge’ her.
No. Our Springers are selectively bred for the job, and professionally conditioned and trained from a very young age to ignore any animal that isn’t part of their pack. 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 recognize these from a distance and steer clear. They do not investigate any animal, dead or alive, even if that animal is a Koala.
We regularly come across live Koalas, and occasionally dead ones too; they know to stay away and do not even look at them. Because they display no interest in Koalas, Koalas are not stressed by their presence. However, Koala welfare is always our top priority: when we spot a live Koala, we either leave immediately or if we do need to check on it (e.g. to perform a visual health check) we will tie up the dog well away/or lead it back to our work vehicle, perform a quick visual check from a safe distance (using binoculars) then leave as quickly as possible. If necessary, call a wildlife ambulance if the Koala displays any clinical symptoms of disease.
Please note, we do not look for Koalas themselves. It is their scat that we are after, as their scat is much more powerful in determining how Koalas use a landscape. Additionally, it is samples of their scat that is extremely useful in telling us many things our eyes can’t see – their DNA profile, their gender, whether they carry key pathogens (without necessarily displaying any clinical symptoms), whether that particular individual has crossed the road in the last few weeks, etc. Merely spotting a live Koala is really not that informative at all in our studies, so there is no need to disrupt their normal activities.
We may in exceptional circumstances agree to track a live individual if there is a valid and justifiable reason for such, e.g. a sick or injured Koala that has moved in the forest but is in need of medical attention.
OWAD Environment is extremely conscious of not spreading invasive weeds. 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 dogs’ jackets and harnesses are carefully selected and modified by us in key spots to also minimise weeds becoming attached to the dogs’ gear.
Additionally, in areas where the dogs are still picking up a lot of seeds/pods we put gaiters on their legs too, and we also have a dog ‘weed jacket’ that they wear when necessary. We are cautious with that jacket as it does make them heat quicker, so we will typically identify areas of a site where they may need to wear that jacket and go through these areas first thing in the morning during the cooler hours of the day.
The health and well-being of our dogs are 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.
Even though we do take a number of measures to minimise the risk of our dogs ingesting poisoned baits, due to the extreme potency of 1080 and PAPP the first control is always to conduct a thorough risk assessment. Each project must successfully pass the poisoned bait risk assessment in order for fieldwork to proceed. This risk assessment is a key component in determining project feasibility. All the other controls we have in place are additional to the bait risk assessment, to further minimise the risk of our dogs ingesting a lethal dose of 1080 or PAPP.
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 always performing at 100% efficiency, and that the field results are reliable and reflective of the true site conditions.
These QA/QC protocols ensure that there isn’t an obscure or unusual factor that may be impeding either the dog’s abilities (such as an unusual environmental factor, e.g. in 2018 we suddenly got caught in a thick dust storm – several QCs were performed during the rest of the day to ensure that the dust was not preventing the dogs from finding their targets) or impeding the handler’s abilities to handle and ‘read’ the dog properly (e.g. handler fatigue, which could lead to the handler making handling mistakes e.g. redirecting the dog when it was clearly working the scent cone of a target).
A crucial component of our QA/QC process is that the handler is never informed of where or when a QC search is being undertaken. This ensures that the handler does not in any way modify the way they handle the dog. It is only after a QC search is completed that it is revealed to the handler that this was a QC search.
To date, OWAD Environment has not failed a single Quality Control search. However, we do have procedures in place in case this were to happen. If a QC test were to fail, work would stop immediately and in the following order: (1) identify the cause for failure (2) remediate the cause for failure and (3) perform another QC test to confirm that the cause was correctly identified and remediated. If the cause for failure is identified and successfully remediated, work resumes. No further work would be performed until this sequence has been completed. Full details of our QA/QC procedures are included in our reports.