Conservation Dogs Down Under
In the 1890s, New Zealand’s first conservation officer, Richard Henry, employed dogs to detect kakapo and kiwis (two flightless bird species) on the mainland, with the intent of moving them to a predator-free island nearby—thus launching this nation’s long legacy of using dogs for conservation. Despite its well-deserved reputation for breathtaking scenery and world class wildlife, New Zealand continues to contend with conservation challenges. A large number of the native plants and animals inhabiting its unique island habitats are found no place else on the planet—and introduced plants and predators threaten many of these native species with extinction.
Today, New Zealand’s Department of Conservation oversees its own National Conservation Dog Programme. The program certifies dogs in two broad categories. “Threatened Species Dogs” are used to passively indicate the presence of target species—for example, the kiwi, blue ducks, geckos and wood roses—so that populations can be adequately monitored. “Predator Dogs” search for introduced predators, such as stoats, rats and cats. In order to participate in either program, conservation dogs undergo a two-stage certification process. The first stage requires the dog/handler team to pass an obedience test, while full certification involves controlled searches in the field. Handlers must also demonstrate adequate knowledge of dogs and their target species.
New Zealand’s Conservation Dog Programme, which represents a promising global model, has certified 58 dog/handler teams to date. According to John Cheyne, the program’s national coordinator, detection dogs play a vital role in New Zealand’s ongoing efforts to protect its natural heritage. “The, flightless, nocturnal and cryptically coloured kakapo would most likely be extinct today if trained dogs had not been used to locate them in the dense New Zealand forest,” explains Cheyne. “Similarly, kiwi conservation is at least 20 years ahead of where it would have been, simply by using dogs.”