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Special sniffer dogs

Behind the Scenes - Travelling With Cheetah Tracking Dogs in Kenya

We have already introduced you to many different heroes from the Naturavetal® family, such as the mountain rescue dogs Merlin and Ivy, the therapy dogs Alaska and Lou, the personal detection dogs and the fantastic nature and species conservation detection dogs. In this article, Dr Slotta-Bachmayr takes us to Kenya to meet the Cheetah tracking dogs. Cheetah tracking dogs are specially trained sniffer dogs that are able to indicate the presence of cheetahs - why do they do this? Find out in this article.

How can a sniffer dog help protect cheetahs and facilitate their research?

A Cheetah tracking dog detects cheetah tracks which indicates their presence. There is therefore no need to actively search for the cheetah, which makes using a Cheetah tracking dog a completely non-invasive search method. If cheetah droppings are detected, they can be used to analyse the cheetah's DNA, choice of prey or health.

Leopold Slotta-Bachmayr is a scientist and dog trainer in Salzburg. He has been working with Action for Cheetahs in Kenya since 2022. He supports the organisation in training their dogs and handlers, certifies the teams and has worked with them on a dog stress project. In October 2023, he travelled to Kenya again to search for cheetahs together with Action for Cheetahs.

What are Cheetah tracking dogs?

Dogs and Cheetahs - how do they get together?

Dogs have been used for hunting for thousands of years, doing nothing other than searching for certain animal species and directing the hunter to them. In the last 20 years, scientists have increasingly utilised this ability to search for endangered or rare species with the help of dogs. They use the dogs' fine nose, which not only enables them to recognise individual species reliably, but also to find them from a great distance. As dogs use their sense of smell, they usually find many of these species much faster or better than humans do.

The cheetah is the fastest land mammal in the world. It is thought to be able to run at speeds of up to 130 km/h. It is found both in Africa and in parts of Asia. It is estimated that there are around 7,000 cheetahs in Africa, of which around 1,500 live in Kenya. These animals are particularly threatened by habitat modification and fragmentation, but also by the illegal animal trade, which is precisely where Cheetah tracking dogs come into play. 

These special sniffer dogs are trained to indicate the presence of cheetahs, for example by detecting their droppings. This not only enables DNA analyses, which can provide information about the cheetah's population and distribution, but also ensures that preventative action can be taken in the area of protection, e.g. the local population's domesticted pets. 

Action for Cheetahs in Kenya (ACK) is a non-profit organisation that works to promote understanding between humans and cheetahs

As cheetahs frequently prey on sheep and goats, this can lead to conflicts with the local population. Action for Cheetahs in Kenya (ACK) is a non-profit organisation that not only collects data on the population and distribution of cheetahs in Kenya, but also advises the local population on how to protect their domestic animals from lions, leopards, hyenas and cheetahs. To this end, ACK works with scientists from all over the world and with local field scouts who are familiar with the local conditions and the local people living there.

An important part of ACK's work is the work of the detection dogs to sniff out the feaces. This not only enables ACK to collect data on the distribution of cheetahs. The DNA analysis of the faeces also provides information on which cheetahs are involved, where they come from and how large the population is.

How many Cheetah tracking dogs are working for Action for Cheetahs? 

What does a normal day look like for a Cheetah tracking dog?

Two sniffer dogs are currently working for ACK. Madi is an 8-year-old male Rottweiler/Border Collie and Persi is a 4 year old female Malionis. There is also an 11-year-old Warrior, who is already in retirement. These dogs are active working dogs that are either trained in Nairobi or used in Samburu. The dog team includes 4 dog handlers who are responsible for working with the dogs. Their work begins in the morning immediately after getting up. The dogs' bodies are carefully checked for wounds or parasites. Parasites are one of the greatest dangers for dogs in Africa, so special care is required here. 

The dogs' body temperature is then measured to ensure that they are completely healthy and ready for action. Then it's off on a long walk, because the physical fitness of the dogs is a guarantee that they will be able to work well when on a mission. We are talking about 2-3 hours of walking for the dogs. If the temperatures allows, this is followed by training for display or motivation to ensure that the search is carried out. Usually the outside temperatures around midday do not allow for any further activities and only towards evening are there further training sessions and another walk.

What is the procedure when a Cheetah tracking dog is used?

If a search is scheduled for a day, it actually starts the day before, because the dog handlers first have to inspect the search area. It is usually the case that a cheetah sighting is reported to one of the field officers. They then pass the report on to the dog team and the dog handlers then come round to inspect the area.

Various things are taken into account: What is the vegetation like on site? Can the dogs move around easily? Are there other animals in the search area?

Prickly plants play a major role and therefore the dogs usually work with shoes. Are there many pets in the area and which ones? Pets in the search area make the search more difficult and distract the dogs. Are there any dangers for the dogs such as leopards, lions or baboons? Potential dangers require a special approach and equipment to protect the dogs. On the one hand, the dogs wear a stab-proof waistcoat to protect them against claws and teeth. On the other hand, so-called spotters safeguard the dogs' search. The spotters mark the search strip so that the dog handlers know where to search and they observe the terrain to warn of dangers.

The search itself usually takes place in rough terrain without roads or paths and is planned on the GPS. The coordinator directs the handler's movements with the help of the GPS device, who in turn observes and directs their dog. In addition to the dog handler, the coordinator is also responsible for the spotters and the scientist who documents and collects the dogs' finds. More importantly, a break is taken at least every 30 minutes so that the dogs do not overheat. They rest in the shade, are given water and also wear a cooling waistcoat. The search only continues when the dogs are fit again. This not only guarantees an efficient search, but also the well-being of the dogs.

A successful mission

Dr Slotta-Bachmayr reports

Day 1
“It was well known that cheetahs use the area around Barsilinga. ACK had already found droppings and tracks of cheetahs here a few weeks ago and we wanted to search this area again. Today we wanted to get a feel for the habitat and possible dangers. The area is well laid out, sparsely vegetated and there are only a few domestic animals, but also elephants, baboons and leopards, so tomorrow we will have to be a little careful."

Day 2
"The next day we left the camp at exactly 5.30 a.m. in complete darkness, and started searching at 7.00 a.m. The conditions were optimal - light wind, comparatively cool and no pets in the area. The coordination between the dog handler and their dog, the two spotters on the edges and the search coordinator worked perfectly. Every 30 minutes there was a break for 10 minutes so that the dog could take a breather. This went on for almost 3 hours with 100 metre-wide strokes. At around 10.00 a.m. we had covered just over half of the 1 km² area. Then it got too hot, but we'll continue tomorrow. Then we will search the rest of the area. Unfortunately we didn't find anything, but Madi showed a lot of interest in the marker tree. At least it smelled of cheetah."

Day 3
"The next day we continued in Barsilinga. The second part of the area still had to be searched and as Persi was still injured, Madi was allowed to come along again. It all started with a perfect dawn and fresh cheetah tracks, which ACK Field Officer Chris Lentaam discovered before the search at a well-known marker tree. During the search, Chris found more tracks and then I also stumbled across a cheetah track. Then Madi found a new, unknown marking tree with cheetah droppings. This made the training and the search totally worthwhile. The cheetah droppings were collected, packaged and sent to the lab. We drove back to camp and were able to get a good night's sleep after a successful search."

The result of the mission

Due to a prolonged period of drought, the cheetahs in the area have become significantly fewer. However, after the cheetah droppings were analysed in the laboratory, it was determined that they came from an animal that is "new" to the area. This could be a sign that the cheetahs are slowly returning to the area after the drought period. This information could therefore contribute directly to the protection of the population, as well as the cheetahs. 

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Dr Slotta Bachmayr - an exciting career

Dr Leopold Slotta-Bachmayr, biologist and dog trainer from Salzburg, combines impressive expertise in biology, cynology and animal behaviour. Self-employed since 2015, he acts as a sworn expert for dog husbandry and training. His varied professional career includes managerial positions in zoos and animal shelters, as well as extensive scientific work, particularly in the field of rescue dog work. 

As a Federal Coordinator for Rescue Dogs at the Austrian Red Cross since 2018, he utilises his extensive knowledge in the training of rescue and conservation dogs. His captivating lecturing activities at universities and in animal care training reflect his commitment to imparting specialist knowledge about dog behaviour, stress levels in dogs and innovative approaches in police dog training. Dr Slotta-Bachmayr is not only an outstanding expert, but also a passionate advocate of harmonious coexistence between humans and dogs.


Our thanks go to Dr Slotta-Bachmayr for taking the time to tell us about Action for Cheetahs and their fascinating Cheetah tracking dogs in Kenya.

At Action for Cheetahs, the partnership between humans and dogs helps to protect the majestic cheetahs in Kenya. Here, humans and dogs not only form a well-coordinated team, but also a bridge between conservation, animal welfare and community support. The dogs protect the cheetah and humans alike, while enthusiastically exploring wild Kenya alongside humans.

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