Reasons to Rescue: A Conservation Dog Perspective

At the start of 2021 we rescued our latest conservation detection dog, Sonny. Sonny is Skylos Ecology’s fifth conservation dog, and our third rescue dog. Like the other Skylos detection dogs, Sonny will be assisting us in collecting environmental data for a range of conservation projects across Australia. We train all our conservation dogs on a variety of projects to help protect Australia’s threatened native species or assist in the management and eradication efforts of invasive ones.


Sonny came to us in late February and, after completing his intensive training program, is already fully operational at our wind farm sites by helping us collect important data on bird and bat turbine strikes. In early 2022, he’ll also be starting training on his second project - detecting feral cat scat. We’ll be collecting data to help map and manage the feral cat populations that are impacting our native species through predation and the spread of toxoplasmosis in the environment – a parasitic disease that is spread by cat faeces. Sonny has been a resounding success, and at just two years of age, he has a bright future ahead of him as a conservation dog.


Our other rescues, Jimmy and Rex, have also proven themselves to be valuable conservation dogs. Jimmy was rescued in 2017 and in that time has worked on conservation projects for the Arthur Rylah Institute (part of DELWP), Conservation Ecology Centre, Parks Victoria, Zoos Victoria, and Wildlife Wonders, to name a few. Rex was rescued in August 2020 and is fully trained on our wind farms. He has also begun training on his second project - Powerful Owl pellets. Rex will help map populations of the threatened Powerful Owl across Victoria, whose numbers are in decline, with habitat loss a major factor.



Sonny Jimmy Rex
 

It takes a very special kind of dog to do this line of work - they need to have a great sense of smell (of course), a strong work ethic, be independent and determined in their nature, have the physical attributes to search in a variety of challenging environments, be comfortable with lots of travel, have the ability to ignore wildlife and other distractions in their work environment, and create strong bonds with their handlers who they work closely with on all their projects. A conservation dog’s character traits and temperament, along with their age and physicality, are key components to what makes them a success in the field.


Our five conservation dogs vary in their origins, with three rescues and two working-line puppies; but what they do have in common is their trainability and their unrelenting love of the job. However, being the curious creatures we are, we did wonder if those we’ve had since puppies from working lines would differ in their abilities from those we got as rescues. Would one option prove to be better than the other?


We don’t have a large sample size (though five dogs seem like a lot to us at times!), but all our dogs are trained the same way and, conveniently for our hypothesis, all are trained on some of the same scents - bird and bat carcasses for wind farms. What’s more, they all get independently assessed twice a year by an ecologist at our wind farm sites. That’s a lot of testing! So, if one option was better than the other, perhaps it would show in our assessment results?


First, a quick note about how our assessment trials are conducted. Our assessment trials are blind[1] – meaning an independent ecologist puts out a number of bat or bird carcasses around a turbine within a standard and pre-determined search radius for us to detect, but the number and location of the trial carcasses are unknown to us, so as not to bias our assessments. The number of targets we find (i.e., the number of True Positives) divided by the number of targets placed (i.e., the number of True Positives + False Negatives) that were placed gives us our Sensitivity score (for more data details – see the Bennett et al. 2020 reference at the end of this blog). Teams (dog and handler) don’t survey the same turbines, so there is some variable in the survey area vegetation for each trial. However, all teams are assessed at the same time on the same day, allowing for time of day and weather condition consistencies across each team.


To look at our data more closely, we took each dog's cumulative trial results from 2020 and 2021 (i.e., added all their targets placed and targets found across all trials), and used this to calculate their overall 2020-2021 sensitivity scores. We then averaged these sensitivity scores according to their origin (puppy, n = 2; rescue, n = 3) and calculated the standard error. Over this period, 85 trials were conducted (puppy, n = 55; rescue, n = 30) with an average 2.44 hectares per trial, for a total of 86.84 hectares in the operational environment searched.


Unsurprisingly to us, the results from all our blind assessments are rather inconclusive – dogs we’ve had since puppies (Raasay and Oakley) have an average Sensitivity of 96.59% (± 1.14%), while rescues (Jimmy, Rex and Sonny) have an average Sensitivity of 97.10% (± 2.17%). In summary, the numbers show there really isn’t much in it.



So, if sourcing from pups and rescuing adult dogs gets the same results, are there any other benefits to one over the other? For us, this is where the rescues pip the pups to the post, and we’d like to share a few reasons why. Though it is very important to us to point out a disclaimer first: we don’t think the rescues are better than the pups at the job. We are grateful for all our dogs; Jimmy, Oakley, Raasay, Rex, and Sonny, for the work they do. We are incredibly thankful they are in our lives, and that we get to work with them and be surrounded by their energies every day.


That being said, we do see the merit and the good in doing this gig with a rescue dog. Through our experience of rescuing dogs and through our observations of Jimmy, Rex, and Sonny, we often talk about our three main reasons to rescue (though, of course, there are more!).



1. A Second Chance.


A pretty obvious, and important, reason. For whatever the circumstance, dogs are put up for adoption. In 2020-21 the RSPCA alone received over 20,000 dogs at their facilities.[2] Thankfully, 8478 dogs (38%) were reclaimed by owners, whilst 8011 (36%) dogs were rehomed, and sadly over 2,500 dogs (11%) were euthanised. Others remain in care or were transferred. Whilst it may take a very special kind of dog to do this work, there are no doubt many dogs in rescues shelters across Australia right now who would make fantastic conservation detection dogs. Our three rescue dogs have already contributed tremendously to conservation efforts in Australia.



For us at Skylos, the journey of watching these three dogs as they have navigated their new lives, from learning to trust new humans, overcoming their fear of certain situations, and then thriving in a training and work environment as a conservation dog, is something we often acknowledge and are truly grateful for. Things that once worried them when they first arrived at Skylos, are now only reminders of how far they have come.


Jimmy would sometimes grimace if you tried to step over him, causing him to get up and move away. These days he’s unlikely to even wake up as we try navigating past his stretched-out body. If he does stir, it’s usually just to roll on his back so he can get a belly rub with our feet.


Rex, who was found wandering in far north New South Wales (NSW) bushland, feared the house. Certain noises (the ceiling fan, a light switch, his nails on the kitchen floor) would often startle him. The first time we tried to play with a squeaky ball ended with Rex running off. It took him a while to build up the courage to come close to us again after these moments. Now Rex’s absolute favourite spot is the sofa, and his reward at work is a squeaky ball, which he chomps on repeatedly, getting a real kick out of that pitchy sound.


When Sonny first arrived, he was (and still is) a squishy bug, but building a bond with him took some time and patience. It was most noticeable with his recall - he would take off from us, and when we tried to call him back, he would just stare back at us. It was a stand-off. It is quite possible that past experiences of returning to a human was not always met with positive outcomes for Sonny. He would excel at his scent training and most of his other field safety training, but still, his recall was a sticking point. Now Sonny cannot run back fast enough from a recall, no matter the distance or distractions. He will high tail it back, often putting the brakes on a little too late when landing at our feet. In fact, he’s now probably got the best recall of all the Skylos dogs.


These are just some of the examples in which these dogs have learnt to trust and been given the opportunity to feel safe and learn. It is extremely rewarding to do good by these dogs and have them do good for our environment in return. We have the absolute pleasure of watching them grow into themselves, find their confidence, their job, and most importantly, their home.



2. Fully Developed Dog


Rescuing an adult dog is a huge advantage for our work, as those special character traits, temperaments, and behaviours that we look for in a conservation dog can be clearly observed. We can ask questions of their foster carers about them, evaluate their problem solving and scenting abilities, and, very importantly, see their behaviours around other animals such as wildlife, livestock, and other domestics.





Jimmy came on a two-week trial with us, in which time he showed himself to be a very capable fella. Rex and Sonny both came from far north NSW, so we worked with their rescuers and had videos of both Rex and Sonny sent to us for review. Our favourite anecdote from Rex’s rescuer was when she thought she lost him – after much searching, he was found in the chook pen, lying down, eating the chicken feed. The rescuer quickly counted the chickens to check none were missing and, in that moment, realised he was quite the laid-back dude around other animals. Knowing Rex as well as we do now, it is no surprise to us that he: (a) was very respectful around the chickens, and (b) was where the food was. It was after that story, and watching a few videos, that we knew Rex was the boy for us - the paperwork was quickly signed, and he was on his way to us.


Whilst they may take a bit of time to adapt to their new life after adoption and it is important to be patient with them in their transition phase, their abilities and potential are evident from those checks, conversations, visits, and stays. Having a good understanding of what we are looking for makes this process straightforward. Health checks can also be undertaken prior to adoption, to make sure they are physically capable to become a working dog. Even the genetic health of a dog can be checked prior to adoption now, with readily available DNA kits in Australia and internationally. We’ve used both Orvivet™ and Embark® on our rescues.[3]



3. Fast-Track Conservation Dog


Our third reason is related to the second: in adopting an adult dog, you not only have a relatively good understanding of who they are and how they will operate, you also do not need to wait for them to develop physically and mentally. Whilst every breed and dog will reach their physical and mental maturity at different ages, around the 18-month mark is a typical timeframe for full maturity[4]. We wait until around that age before working a dog at the same level as our other conservation dogs, as at that age they have the physical development to work for several hours in the field, and the mental development to maintain their focus for that amount of time. This doesn’t mean you can’t begin training them sooner; we begin training our pups on the basics from as young as 8 weeks, but it does mean we have a long wait before they are field ready.





When rescuing, the only time constraint is the scent and safety training. Each dog is different and completes the training in their own time, but we aim to have an adult rescue dog fully trained and deployed within 4 – 6 months of arrival. There is still learning to do on the job, like any job, but following this training they are deemed operationally safe, have been assessed by us on their target species detectability rates, and are of a physical and mental maturity that means they can endure some long days in the field.


This has proved to be a huge benefit to us. After securing a couple of big contracts, we rescued Rex and Sonny within six months of each other to help us deliver them. Rex had been operational for two months when Sonny arrived, meaning we were able to focus on Sonny, who was a little younger at 13-months. Now, Sonny is working the same amount and covering the same size survey area as our four older dogs.


This is important because it doesn’t only mean we can comfortably deliver on the projects we have, but from a welfare perspective we have more dogs sharing the load. None of the dogs are overworked and if any pickup an injury, we can rest them with others stepping in to cover comfortably. This has been achievable with the introduction of two new dogs in a relatively short space of time.


 

These are the three main reasons we have found it beneficial to rescue an adult dog for conservation detection work. But of course, our rescue boys aren’t just working dogs, they are family members, too, and outside of the reasons to rescue from a conservation dog perspective, another reason is that they make fantastic companion animals. The bond we have with our rescues is equally as strong as the bond we have with our dogs sourced as puppies. Anyone who has rescued a dog will understand the mutual sense of gratitude between them and their rescue dog. Their work withstanding, we are extremely grateful to have these dogs in our lives and to care for them. They may not have had the ideal start to their lives, but it sure is fun making up for that with them each day.



The boys at home.
 

Of course, not every rescue dog can be a conservation dog; but, for whatever circumstances have fallen on them, those special dogs are out there waiting to be rescued, and they have a proven track record that they can be incredible assets for conservation. There are many great organisations out there who also use rescue dogs for conservation work; Conservation K9 Consultancy, Rogue Detection Teams, University of Sunshine Coast's Detection Dogs for Conservation, Working Dogs for Conservation, Zoos Victoria's Fighting Extinction Dog Squad to name a few. These organisations have done some incredible work with their rescue dogs, from saving koalas after bushfires, to searching for whale scat on vessels, protecting our natural environment through pest and invasive species detection, or even assisting with wildlife anti-trafficking operations. Rescue dogs are out there, kicking some pretty big conservation goals across the globe.


Thank you to the rescue organisations who helped us find our boys: Paws2Luv (Jimmy), Doggie Moggie Rescue (Rex), and Working Paws Dog Rescue (Sonny), and to all the other rescue organisations out there, working tirelessly to help dogs find their home. You all do incredible work.


Finally, we would like to thank Emma Bennett, Principal Ecologist at Elmoby Ecology, for the continuous and rigorous testing of our dogs at wind farm sites across Victoria and New South Wales.


If you are thinking of rescuing a dog for conservation work and would like any advice on what to look for and/or the avenues to go down, we would be more than happy to share our experience and tips with you. Please, just email contact@skylosecology.com and we’ll be sure to get back to you to help you find your next teammate.



Reference:

Bennett, EM, Hauser, CE, Moore, JL (2020) Evaluating conservation dogs in the search for rare species. Conservation Biology. 34, 314-325.


[1] Whilst handlers are aware of the detectability trial being undertaken, the trial is still considered blind as handlers are unaware of carcass number and type and which turbines are and are not baited, thus providing sufficient blinding to validate the testing.

[2] https://www.rspca.org.au/sites/default/files/RSPCA%20Australia%20Annual%20Statistics%202020-2021.pdf [3] Skylos Ecology is not affiliated / sponsored by these organisations. [4] https://www.paws.org/resources/developmental-stages-of-puppy-behavior/


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