Sniffing out trouble – conservation detection dogs saving threatened species

Maya cropped

Conservation detection dogs are widely used in New Zealand and US, and over the past 10 years have been used a little in Australia. The traditional use of detection dogs was for explosive, drugs and weapon detection, or search and rescue dogs. Many professionals undertaking explosive, drugs and weapon detection, or search and rescue programs would not attempt to perform their jobs without their canine colleague. Just like these professionals, conservationists and land managers have started realising the usefulness of detection dogs in achieving their goals.

Syrotuck (2000) indicated that approximately one eighth of a dogs brain and over 50% of the internal nose is committed to olfaction, whereas the allocation in a human brain and nose is significantly less. Humans have approximately 5 million scent receptors in our nose, whereas, a German Shepherd has approximately 220 million scent receptors (Syrotuck 2000). The diagrams below, which are taken from Syrotuck (2000, pp 14, 15 and 22), indicate the location of the significantly more olfactory cells in a dogs nose compared with a human nose.

Dog and human noses

Plate 1. Olfactory cells in a dogs nose compared with a human nose

Dogs’ noses are designed so that they can smell continuously (not just on the inhale, as we do) and they can even determine which nostril an odour arrived in first, which helps them locate a scent in space.

Conservation detection dogs can be trained on any object that has an odour, which is almost everything. In conservation, dogs have been trained on threatened and rare animals (which because of their very rareness are hard to find), on scats (poo) of these animals, on pest species (feral animals, invasive plants) at their invasion front, on threatened plants and quite impressively, on marine mammals!

So how good are detection dogs? Johnson (2003) provides an example of his German Shepherd ‘Avenger’. In 1974, Johnson was commissioned to search for leaks in a new 30cm diameter natural gas pipeline that was 150km long. The engineers knew there were leaks in the pipeline as it was losing pressure, but all of the available technology was unable to detect the leaks. Johnson was given 9 days to search and locate all leaks in the 150km pipeline. After implementing a suitable training program, over 150 confirmed leaks were detected and sealed. On one occasion a dog identified a leak when the pressure in the pipe was 59 Bars and was buried 5.4m below the surface with a mound of heavy clay. When the pipe was uncovered no leak could be found, but when the pipe pressure was raised to 103 Bars a leak was found.

Some of the fauna dogs have been trained to detect include:

Red-eared slider turtle  Kakapos
Koala and koala scats  Little blue penguins
Foxes  Gorillas
Cats  Badgers
Tiger Quolls  Bears
Salamanders  Lynx
Orca scats  Pine Martens
Caribou  Wild boars
Moose  Africa land snails
Wolves  Red imported fire ants
Kiwi  Northern Quolls

In most cases the dogs used for scent detection work make poor family pets as they are considered very annoying. They are usually very obsessed with balls, high energy, very demanding and, as such, they are usually abandoned dogs and are often rescued from shelters.

Dr Romane Cristescu and colleagues have trained a koala scat detection dog for work on the east coast of Australia. I was lucky enough to meet Romane and her dog Maya whilst at a wildlife conference 12 months ago and watch Maya in action. Koala’s are often very difficult to find as they live high up in Eucalypt trees, however, their scats have a very characteristic scent and they used this to their advantage. Dr Christescu with the assistance of a professional dog trainer, trained a female Border Collie cross, Maya, and then tested her ability against humans in effectiveness in searching for koala scats. Off lead, Maya’s detection rate was 100% efficient (i.e. found every indication of koala scats), was 19 times more efficient than current scat survey methods and 153% more accurate (the dog found koala scats where the human-only team did not; Cristescu et al. 2015). This clearly demonstrates that the use of detection dogs decreases false negatives and survey time, thus allowing for a significant improvement in the quality and quantity of data collection.

Once trained, conservation detection dogs are the most effective and cheapest field assistant you can use when you are searching for a threatened species or its feral predator. All they want when the job is over is some affection and a game of fetch or tug-o-war with their favourite toy. In the next decade, conservation detection dogs will be used more in searching for threatened and predator species, and are likely to be an additional ‘tool’ used in the fauna aspect of an environmental impact assessment.

Maya by Marie Colibri

An interesting article was written in the Australian online news this week about the use of conservation detection dogs to eradicate rabbits from Macquarie Island. This work was done by Steve Austin who has been training dogs for conservation purposes for many years. To read the article click here.


Cristescu, R. H., Foley, E., Markula, A., Jackson, G., Jones, D., and Frere, C. 2015. Accuracy and efficiency of detection dogs: a powerful new tool for koala conservation and management. Sci Rep 5:8349.

Johnson, G. R. 2003. Tracking Dog Theory and Methods. Barkleigh Productions, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.

Syrotuck, W. G. 2000. Scent and Scenting Dog. Barkeleight Productions, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.

Photo credit: Top – Maya the koala scat detection dog; bottom – Maya ready for work (courtesy of Marie Colibri)

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2 Responses to “Sniffing out trouble – conservation detection dogs saving threatened species”

  1. Polly Hammond on February 24th, 2016 10:57 am

    Where can I find out more information for WA based implementation of this technique? This is my next job 🙂

  2. Scott Thompson on February 24th, 2016 11:20 am

    To the best of my knowledge there are no firms offering this kind of service in WA. Australian Wildlife Conservancy have their own trained detection dogs for cats and probably other species, and there are east coast firms who are occasionally commissioned to work in WA. We have been told that it would cost between $30-80,000 to train a dog to an preliminary standard (depending on target species) and the training is then ongoing before it could be field trialed. It would take 6 months of initial training and then up to 2 years of further training before the dogs were of sufficient standard to have them used in the wild. It is a special kind of dog trained for this kind of work and specialist skills bring high costs.

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