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Conservation Dogs – Great Expectations and the Importance of the Handler

I am a dog trainer and handler working with search dogs for thirteen years, initially in Search & Rescue but more recently in conservation field work, conducting environmental surveys with my dogs Rubble, Ngare and Uda, for Canidae Development. This article came about while reflecting on the past twelve months. Why? Because during the last year or so I have learnt more about being a dog handler than in my previous twelve years training and working with dogs.

I had done a formal review of the last year, which included analyzing the data from over four hundred surveys, many acres searched, and the more than one-thousand kilometers I have covered with the dogs. I needed to know -- had I met the goals and expectations I had set for the year? So I crunched the data and looked at our statistics. Numbers-wise we looked good. But statistics aside, it was difficult not to reflect on the more valuable things that I learnt.

My greatest learning came out of the detectability trials that we (the dogs and I) undertook. The data we produce forms part of statistical modelling, so it is important to know our detectability rates. We also need to achieve high detection rates (80% or higher) to ensure the modelling is as accurate as can be. This involves two annual assessments on each of the properties where we work. The trials involve up to six hours of surveys over a full day, and a ‘full day’ involves six to twelve surveys ranging from twenty to sixty minutes’ duration. These are usually conducted during a monthly survey cycle that sees us in the field for three to five days.

We are the most assessed detection-dog team that I know. This makes me laugh a little, as by comparison as a Search & Rescue dog handler I was only required to do one operational assessment every two years (being only four twenty-minute searches), plus a fundamental skills assessment on alternating years. That qualified me to maintain my current operational status for Search & Rescue.

For most of the conservation trials we met expectations, but for our first trial, which was conducted on our first visit to our first survey site, we got only 60%. Prior to that trial I was confident that we would do well as all the testing we did in training indicated that we would get close to 100%. This was where, as a dog handler, I learnt my biggest lesson. Just for the record, our best result was over 160%, we had not only found all the controls, but we had made actual finds during the assessment.

So my biggest question was why did we have a low detection rate in our first detectability trial? While exploring the answer to this question the common theme was expectations: What were mine, and what are those of researchers and conservationists, and those of new potential dog handlers? Do we set realistic targets, how do we measure them, and do they match reality? It turns out to be a bit like one of those Memes – what my mum thinks I do, what society thinks I do, what friends think I do, what my dogs thinks we do, and what I actually do.

The paramount expectations, for me, are from those who are interested in using the data collected by a detection dog team for their research or conservation program. Yet it’s of real concern that this is where I have found the greatest variation. Some keen and well-intentioned researchers think that it is a ‘no brainer’ that a detection dog, with their extraordinary sense of smell, will automatically improve data accuracy and cut down on survey times. There is a common misconception that a trained detection dog will go out into the field and just ‘find everything’. Others are a bit more skeptical; they have previously been involved in projects that have utilized detection dogs and the outcomes have not lived up to the expectations, with what the researchers deem to be low detection rates. Sadly, this second example is becoming more frequent; but why?

My own expectations come from several sources. In my work there are very specific targets set, based on how the data I produce is used, but also a very clear target on my team’s proven detectability rates. Our work forms part of a larger study, and is used for statistical modelling; my dogs and I need to demonstrate a clear detectability rate to ensure the modelling is accurate.

I set my own rates/metrics based on knowing myself and the three dogs I work with: Rubble, Ngare and Uda. This is arrived at via my deep knowledge of and experiential observation of the dogs – from their performance in training and work, to their temperament, health, care, and lifestyle, to their bond with my family beyond their work-day. I’ve learned not to underestimate the bond between truly committed handlers and their working dogs.

The expectations of people who make enquiries about dog handling are also interesting, (usually both optimistic and endearing). It is often the romantic expectation, “I want to do something with my dog that is meaningful, work outdoors, and potentially contribute to work that saves an endangered animal.” While all of these romantic ideals hold true, the reality once in the field conducting surveys can be more harsh: walking for six hours in temperature extremes ranging from minus-three degrees to well over thirty degrees, whilst being exposed to high wind, pelting rain, mud, or an unrelenting sun beating down on you and the dogs. Then repeat this every day for up to five days! The realities of the job are not for everyone.

In Australia and internationally, detection dogs are increasingly being used. This attracts media interest which in turn redefines some areas of expectation. Getting the story out in the public has the benefits of promoting and raising awareness of a particular cause. Yet the flipside is that these positive stories reinforce romantic ideas about the work that we do. Unfortunately this means that the real story, about actual outcomes or the true nature of the work itself, can then get ‘lost in the mix.’

An article written about Conservation Dogs in Canada talked about the great work that they do, but also highlighted a fundamental (and often misunderstood) reality of our work: working with conservation dogs is a lifestyle and a passion not suited to everyone. I was intrigued by a couple of statistics that are relevant in setting expectations of conservation dogs:

1. About 90% of the dogs selected by this organization were successful in becoming field survey dogs (this is a very impressive stat in itself and a credit to the selection process and trainers)

2. Only 20 – 25% of potential handlers were suitable for conducting field surveys

This second figure is very poignant and highlights what is the most crucial component of working with dogs and particularly dogs in conservation-- the importance of the handler. The role of the handler is often overlooked or misunderstood, with the focus and attention placed on the dog and/or the trainer. Yet the handler is the key to meeting everyone’s expectations.

Firstly, and most importantly, the handler is responsible for their own welfare and that of their dog. Occupational Health and Safety is not just for humans in this case as procedures need to be developed and implemented to identify, remove, or minimize risks to the dogs. In many situations teams operate in remote locations and plans must be made for the worst case scenario, with people who are themselves trained and equipped to carry out these plans. If a program is relying on the data collected by the detection dog team an injury could undo an entire program. Fitness is crucial not only for the dog, but for the handler.

Secondly, handlers are the search manager. They are responsible for developing and implementing search strategies that will ensure the greatest probability of detection. This goes directly to the heart of meeting the expectations for using detection dogs in conservation. To do this effectively the handlers needs to be able to read their dog, the ever changing environment they are working in and adapt their search strategy on the go to match how their dogs work. An understanding of their target species is required; where is it most likely to occur and shall the search aim to cover 100% or will it be a randomized search area based on the objectives of the project?

Finally, handlers need to have a strong bond with their dog. In my experience this is the most difficult thing to explain as it is very subjective. The bond you have with your dog-as-team-mate becomes paramount as you work the long hours required to search large open areas of land, off lead and in a variety of habitats, with unknown distractions, and for extended periods of time exposed to the elements. This bond can be influenced by everything from our personality through to the way in which we house and live with our team-mates, the dogs. There is more and more research being conducted into Anthrozoology which will start to fill the gaps in the understanding of this area. My own thirteen years of dog training and handling experience indicate that the bond is absolutely pivotal to any success.

Another point of interest, related to the bond with your dog, is research that has shown that a handler can influence their dogs to such an extent as to create false alerts. Although this is seen as a negative result, it does demonstrate that handlers have a strong effect on their dogs. It stands to reason that if we can have a negative effect we can also have a positive influence on our results as well.

So to answer that question about why did we not do so well in the first trial?

In training, our dogs have demonstrated their ability to search, find, and alert on their targets. In the case of this first trial Rubble knew his job, but (as I mentioned earlier) the role of the handler is the key to meeting expectations. As a handler my search strategies were still being formulated so I did not cover 100% of the survey area, which lead to missing targets.

In addition to that, I had the pressure of performing in front of the people relying on the data I was to collect, and to meet the set targets created anxiety in me which affected Rubble’s work. My bond with Rubble is strong and he could tell that something was different with me. He was not working as independently as he did in training and was checking back with me a lot and not focusing on the job. The bond you have with your dogs is important, and as a handler you can affect how your dog works.

The other major influencing factor in this experience was this was the first time we had to perform his job over the (much longer) period of time that was required for the job. Training initially had consisted of short sessions teaching our dogs to find and alert. Even though towards the end we would train for several hours a day over multiple days at a time leading up to the first trials, it was difficult to replicate the actual conditions of field work.

This is where as a handler managing your dog becomes vitally important for two key reasons. One: to ensure that you maintain their health and welfare and, two: to maintain consistent detection rates over the entire course of a survey. If your dogs are not physically capable of working for the time required they will not be mentally capable of focusing on their job, resulting in lower detection rates as the survey goes on. The same applies to the handler. Also if you push your dog beyond their capabilities they may not enjoy the work, and can shut down and stop working.

These points are all ones of experience, and as time went on the trials just became a part of the job. As I gained experience my survey strategy improved and with that, my confidence increased and anxiety decreased, which in turn meant that my dogs were less worried about me and more focused on the work. Although our fitness was the least of our concerns it is an important point to consider; maintaining fitness for handler and dog not only enables them to do the job but conditions them to the weather encountered during surveys.

In setting expectations it’s important to understand our goals and outcomes. This in turn helps us define the way in which we must train and assess our dog teams. It is important for any program to have a meaningful way of measuring its success. We see experiments run in labs with dogs achieving very high detection rates of between ninety to one-hundred percent, or trainers demonstrating the ability of their dogs with equally good results. However, such trials are usually conducted in highly controlled environments that tend to be on tight time constraints in limited search areas, with observers focusing on the dogs. The problem with this is that is doesn’t always match the reality of the actual work.

For a conservation detection dog team and program to be successful the key factors to understand are:

- Clearly define your program objectives and outcomes,

- Identify what data you need to meet your outcomes,

- Decide is a detection dog the best way to collect that data?

- Understanding what the reality of the task is,

- Ensure training and assessments/trials match the reality of the work,

- Handlers and dogs are prepared and have the experience to meet expectations.

These factors are important to know up front as it affects things you need to take into consideration when training a dog, selecting the right dog, selecting the right handler, and selecting the right process to measure if the program is meeting expectations.

Detection dogs working in the field of conservation can be of real benefit and we have demonstrated that our detection dog teams, compared to traditional survey methods, have greater detectability rates, are more efficient at covering a survey site, and are capable of meeting all expectations. But it takes hard work and commitment, and detection dogs (like any survey tool) can’t be expected to have that mythical perfect detection rate 100% of the time. It’s wonderful and fulfilling work to undertake, that can see valuable and measurable outcomes, but for the dogs and their handler, it’s not just a walk in the park!


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