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Put your paws up for conservation dogs!

Published 17 Aug 2022 by Bee Stephens

Lucy is a ginger Kelpie Heeler cross, who lives on Bush Heritage’s Yourka Reserve on Jirrbal and Warrungu country in Queensland. Her days are spent walking by the river amongst the staggering Queensland Blue Gums (Eucalyptus tereticornis), Paperbark Forest (Melaleuca quinquenervia) or Lemon-scented Gum woodlands (Corymbia citriodora).

Lucy sniffs for the noxious Siam weed or other invasive species, completes target detection training sessions, and enjoys the odd nap in the sun plus a few hard-earned belly rubs.   

Lucy is Yourka’s resident conservation dog (in training). A furry, capable friend with a heightened sense of smell, around 10,000 times better than the average human and a nose that can track multiple scents simultaneously.

Powerful, sniff-able stuff!  

So, what are conservation dogs? 

There are three main types of conservation dogs:

  1. Detection dogs who find evidence of animals, or invasive plant species.
  2. Guardian dogs who live alongside threatened species to protect them and deter predators.
  3. 'Bailers' who will try to 'bail up' larger invasive species.

The right dog can be trained to track and identify anything that omits an odour, such as plants, animals and even species who live under the sea. 

It’s not just about the dog though, it’s very much a team effort. As Tracy Lyten, President of the Australian Conservation Dog Network, says, “It is about both the dog and the handler. Each conservation dog has certain attributes, you couple that with the handler or researcher’s technical expertise and that helps refine the work the team will do.” 

Working with dogs to achieve conservation goals is gaining momentum across the globe and in Australia. Through trials, research and various projects, conservationists are proving that dogs can help achieve certain fieldwork goals, faster and smarter.  

Jojo, a Kelpie Jack Russell Whippet cross is another faithful detection hound who has been assisting the work of our field staff at Bon Bon Reserve, Antakirinja Matu-Yankunytjatjara country in South Australia. Jojo helps owner Tony Cathcart, an Invasive Species Contractor, identify predator’s scats, once detected the scats are sent away for dietary analysis and allow us to identify what prey species are on the reserve.

Tony believes “There are so many advantages to scent detection dogs, they are an absolute necessity in invasive species control and critical to helping save Australia’s native species.”  

Another example is Zoos Victoria’s work with detection dogs, who were tasked to survey the remaining population of the critically endangered Baw Baw Frog (Philoria frosti) on Mt Baw Baw.

While researchers can often hear the frogs, they're extremely difficult to find. Particularly in Winter, when the frogs retreat underground and survive by breathing through a tiny air hole that connects their burrows to the alpine air.

Through snow, mud, fallen trees and difficult terrain, the dogs used their primed noses to find the frogs and allowed researchers to learn more about their population and behaviour. 

What is Lucy sniffing for at Yourka?  

The Mt Baw Baw project sparked particular interest for Lucy’s owner Paul Hales, our Healthy Landscape Manager in North Queensland.

“If we can apply some of those detection techniques from the Mt Baw Baw frog to the Magnificent Broodfrog, that could be very beneficial."

The endangered Magnificent Broodfrog (Pseudophryne covacevichae) is about the size of an M&M, has a striking sash of orange on its back and only lives in high-elevation areas in the tablelands of North Queensland, very, very close to our Yourka Reserve.   

“We're yet to find a Magnificent at Yourka, but we know it exists north and south of us, so really the detection work could help fill in the gap,” says Paul. Once found, recovery plans can be put in place to help protect this colourfully magnificent amphibian. 

Connecting with the conservation dog community  

Luckily for Paul, he’ll be able to learn more about detection techniques and glean other pearls of wisdom at the upcoming Australian Conservation Dog Network Conference. Held on the 18-19 of August, in Canberra, the conference aims to bring everyone interested in or currently working with conservation dogs together, to grow the industry’s collective knowledge and create more opportunities for this work in Australia. 

“We’re very excited. We are all quite isolated either working on our own, out in the field or doing things independently. This conference is an opportunity for us to get together support, share, and learn from each other,” says Tracy.  

Bush Heritage is proud to be a silver sponsor of the event and hopes to sniff out as much knowledge as possible from the program’s diverse range of speakers, discussions and research. 

Lucy by the river at Yourka. Photo Eliza Herbert. Lucy by the river at Yourka. Photo Eliza Herbert.
Yourka landscape. Photo Martin Willis. Yourka landscape. Photo Martin Willis.
Belly rub anyone? Photo Eliza Herbert. Belly rub anyone? Photo Eliza Herbert.
Jojo, Chief Predator Scat Detector at Bon Bon Reserve. Photo by Tony Cathcart. Jojo, Chief Predator Scat Detector at Bon Bon Reserve. Photo by Tony Cathcart.
Pats are essential. Paul Hales with Lucy at Yourka. Photo Eliza Herbert. Pats are essential. Paul Hales with Lucy at Yourka. Photo Eliza Herbert.
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