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Sniffer Dogs for the environment

Conservation Detection Dogs in Action for Nature and Species Conservation

Dogs enrich our everyday lives - dog owners know this from experience. However, people often underestimate how many important tasks dogs perform for humans and how valuable their services are in various useful fields.

That is why we are particularly keen to report on dogs that work with and for people to make the world a better place each day. The possible uses of dogs are extremely diverse. While they were originally mainly used for hunting, they are now indispensable in the fields of policing, customs, military and rescue work. Over the last 30 years, dogs have increasingliy been used in research and nature conservation projects.

The NATURSCHUTZHUNDE association is an association fully committed to training dogs in this field and also offers a platform for professional dialogue. Brigitte Komposch, biologist and dog trainer, has been part of this association since it was founded in 2019. She is involved in training the teams and is also involved in various projects with her English Springer Spaniel.

We are delighted that the NATURSCHUTZHUNDE association has taken the time to answer our many questions about the possible uses, training and certification of detection and conservation dogs. The result is an exciting report that delves into the fascinating world of the conservation detection dogs.

In times when the connection between humans and nature is more crucial than ever, conservation dogs are becoming indispensable helpers. In our article, you can find out how their work not only protects wildlife, but also builds a bridge between nature, animals and humans.

Dogs and nature conservation

What is a conservation detection dog?

Conservation detection dogs are specially trained sniffer dogs that search for rare, hidden animal and plant species or for evidence of their presence (e.g. in the form of droppings, burrows/nests, hair, feathers, roots, seeds, etc.). They always work together in a team with their human handler. 

An example is that they can indicate the presence of wolves, which enables preventive action to be taken in the area of herd protection, or they can indicate the presence of strictly protected species, which provides an insight into their populations or allows protection zones to be established. 

They help to combat the illegal persecution of birds of prey, find golden jackals, lynxes or wildcats or their remains and thus ensure that people can learn more about their distribution.

What are the benefits of using conservation detection dogs?

Dogs are far superior to humans, especially when searching for bat and bird carcasses under wind turbines. Dogs search for the remains of animals that have died in accidents in order to assess the impact of wind turbines on protected species. Dogs are able to find copious and smaller carcasses than humans and need significantly less time to do so. They can also search areas that are densely overgrown.

The search for bat roosts living in tree hollows and crevices is a very complex task. All bats are strictly protected in the EU and the destruction or disturbance of their breeding and resting places is prohibited. Dogs learn to detect the droppings of bats, which then indicate their hiding places, even if there are no bats currently at home. They are also able to find used tree hollows several metres above the ground.

In addition to mammals, birds and reptiles, dogs are also used to sniff out amphibians, fish, molluscs, insects and plants.

Can any dog become a conservation detection dog?

If the dog enjoys its work, is physically fit and co-operates well with its owner, then origin and breed are irrelevant.

Dogs that enjoy using their nose, can be easily motivated with toys or food, are easy to control and physically able to work for many hours in often difficult terrain are particularly well suited to working as conservation detection dogs.

Is there a minimum or maximum age to start training?

Playful training can begin as early as puppy age. And as long as the dog is healthy and fit, training can be done.

What criteria must the dog handlers fulfil?

The handler's task is to be able to read the dog well and support it in the best possible way during the search. This means that the handler must give the dog - depending on the terrain, vegetation, wind conditions, etc. - the opportunity to detect the target scent. In addition, the human part of the team must also be able to negotiate the terrain, have a good sense of direction and be able to carry out and practice project-relevant tasks.

How long does it take to train a conservation detection dog?

The training offered by the NATURSCHUTZHUNDE association primarily trains people to guide their dogs step by step to the desired behaviour. The training consists of theoretical parts in the form of webinars (self-study) and practical weekend courses (Friday to Sunday). These are attended until the dog shows the desired behaviour. Depending on the level of training and experience of the dog and handler, training takes about a year.

How is a practical weekend course organised at NATURSCHUTZHUNDE?

The weekend courses are organised according to the level of training of the participants. The groups are put together after an appropriate evaluation on the first day of the course. A trainer works with a maximum of six human-dog teams. We attach great importance to the individualised structure of the exercises, both in terms of content and training steps. At the end of each weekend course, the next training steps are discussed with all participants. Until the next course, the teams practice independently and have the opportunity to submit videos of their training sessions in order to receive feedback from the training team.

The courses take place in various federal states in Austria, and six to seven courses are currently offered each year. 

What is the focus of the training?

What does the dog need to learn to become a conservation detection dog?

Training is based on positive reinforcement. During this time, the dog learns to recognise the desired target scent, to search for it in the field and to indicate finding it in a way that is clear to the handler.

Is there a test at NATURSCHUTZHUNDE?

In order to guarantee a uniform high standard of training, our organisation has developed special testing regulations (certification). These set out the test criteria in various categories. Any team that fulfils these requirements can apply for certification. Certification takes place in two stages:

Part A - Verification of the safe display of the target odour

Part B - Checking the search performance

Depending on the frequency of use, recertification is required after 18 or 24 months.

What possible uses are there after training as a conservation detection dog?

At the end of the training, the team is certified by the NATURSCHUTZHUNDE association and in theory can practice in the field. After certification, the organisation also offers special coaching to facilitate the transition from training to practice. The teams trained by our organisation are currently deployed in wildlife management, in cases of illegal persecution of protected species, in the search for victims under wind turbines and as support for various scientific projects.

What qualifications do you need to fulfil as a trainer to be allowed to train a conservation detection dog? How did you come to do this work?

All of the trainers in our organisation have completed specialist training and have at least one certified dog that they have trained themselves. I came across NATURSCHUTZHUNDE through my work as a biologist and was immediately fascinated by the practical application possibilities. NATURSCHUTZHUNDE is the perfect opportunity to combine my passion for biology and dogs.

How does an interested party find a conservation detection dog team?

The association's website (www.naturschutzhunde.at) contains a list of teams that are ready for action. These can also be arranged on request (info@naturschutzhunde.at).

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Closing words

We would like to thank the NATURSCHUTZHUNDE association for this great article. We hope that it will help to raise awareness of conservation detection dogs and the opportunities that arise through the use of conservation detection dogs.

In a world that is increasingly characterised by environmental awareness, conservation detection dogs are doing indispensable work in the service of nature and species conservation. Through their unique skills and close bond with their human companions, these dogs help to protect threatened habitats and conserve endangered species. Their commitment is not only impressive, but also an inspiring example of how the partnership between humans and animals can have a lasting impact on our environment. We hope that your efforts will continue to help preserve the diversity of our natural world for generations to come.

Should you have any questions, please feel free to contact us by phone. We are here to help you with comprehensive advice. You can reach us Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. by phone at 020 8531 7804 or mail info@naturavetal.co.uk.

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