Louise Wilson | Conservation Dogs with Conservation Jobs
My Labrador can do “sit” and “salute” … and that’s about it, but there are some much better trained pups out there with well-respected jobs; those who act as seeing-eye dogs, hearing dogs, therapy dogs, avalanche rescue dogs, and those I want to talk about; conservation dogs. Conservation dogs are taking on increasingly vital roles in the conservation industry by detecting infected bee hives in Australia, helping to monitor and protect kiwi in New Zealand, searching for cougar scats and kill sites in the USA, and many others! To find out more about these dogs and their work I spoke with founder of Conservation K9 Consultancy, Louise Wilson.
Louise was the first person to introduce conservation dogs to the UK over 10 years ago, and has been a specialist detection dog trainer, instructor and handler for the last 15 years! Alongside her team of rescue dogs, Louise searches for wildlife or wildlife sign, provides guidance and mentoring for other handlers, and offers specialist consultancy when requested.
How did you arrive at this point in your career?
After being told I would probably never be a dog handler I worked my heart out. I started as a volunteer with detection dogs, became Head of Training, and then Director at the leading detection dog company in the UK. I was trained in detection of explosives, drugs, cash, tobacco, pests, clandestine and cadavers! I went on to set up the first company for use of conservation dogs; working single-handedly (along with many helpful paws) I offered free search demos and training at weekends ad started to gain interest in this use of the dogs. This was my calling! After a short time in South Africa I arrived back in the UK and wanted my passion to be taken seriously, so I set up Conservation K9 Consultancy and never looked back!
What types of projects have you worked on with conservation dogs?
I’ve worked on some of the most amazing projects all over the world! I set up the first Central African Wildlife Crime Detection K-9 unit in Gabon, trained cheetah scat detection dogs in South Africa and used dogs to conduct carnivore census surveys in Montana. Closer to home I’ve carried out pine marten surveys across the UK, used dogs for hedgehog detection and searched for bat carcasses at wind turbine sites. The list is long and varied! Now with Conservation K9 Consultancy, my team and I primarily provide training and handling of dogs in wildlife crime detection or wildlife monitoring research.
What are you highlights from working with these conservation dogs?
There have been too many to mention, especially when we are able to change the lives of so many rescue dogs and contribute toward conservation! One memory that will stay with me is of setting up the dog sections in Gabon for detection of pangolin scales, ivory and other animal products. It was also amazing to be involved in the discovery of the first population of breeding pine martens for 100 years in Shropshire, UK: After searching for 7 years and with inconclusive DNA evidence from the scats found, it was only when Luna showed increased interest in a certain area that we set up camera traps and saw what we were looking for!
It sounds like using conservation dogs can be better than traditional methods…
It has been proven that dogs are faster and far more effective than traditional non-invasive methods (human searches, camera traps, hair traps etc). They can cover larger areas in less time and are non-biased so will simply follow their nose and not where the books tell them to look.
How could someone become a conservation dog handler?
Firstly, they need a true love for dogs and can enjoy their company 24/7 (in addition to a desire to work with them), the best dog handlers absolutely adore their canine counterparts. The initial step would be to get professional training and experience as a detection dog handler – although not a direct path to conservation handling, it’s a step in the right direction. Other experiences such as working in kennels, animal welfare and husbandry, and search and rescue are all worthwhile as they increase overall understanding of dogs. Once someone has adequate knowledge of dogs and grasp of basic detection skills they could attend bespoke training courses as a conservation dog handler. In short, there are many nuances to becoming a conservation dog handler!
So, could a field biologist use or train their own conservation dog?
For those already in conservation, ecology or wildlife monitoring the best way to learn is to apply a dog to existing work. That said, dogs are for life and not just a research paper! To train or use a dog for conservation a person must seek professional advice, attend training courses or utilise consultancy and mentoring programmes. If you go it alone you’re more likely to stumble at points where you wouldn’t stumble with the correct professional support. It is important to remember that a conservation dog is a working dog and must be trained and treated differently to a typical pet dog. I have 7 amazing working dogs, but they can be hard work as pets!
What is the basic outline of training conservation dogs?
Training time and structure depends on many factors including the individual dog, the breed, the project target and many more, but it all comes down to positive training techniques. It is important to find what makes a dog tick and have fun, often this is by using food and/or a play reward. Then there are varying ways to train a conservation dog; capturing natural behaviour on the target odour when exposed to the scent naturally then using a clicker and reward, presenting the target odour followed by a treat, or hiding a ball alongside the scent and then repeatedly retrieving the ball to create a positive association.
Once trained, dogs are an effective and viable tool for use in wildlife monitoring and it’s even better if we can use rescue dogs. Personally, I only use rescue dogs as giving these dogs a new life, new freedom and new training is a breath-taking experience as they are usually so adaptive and absolutely love it!
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’d like to just say that working with conservation dogs is not only my dream and passion, but my purpose; I am here to use dogs in conservation detection and demonstrate how non-invasive and non-biased they are. Conservation makes scents, so it seems senseless not to use dogs that evolved to use their nose… after all… scat happens!
If you need training advice, have a project that would benefit from a conservation dog, or you simply want to find out more you go to the Conservation K9 Consultancy website (www.conservationk9consultancy.com), Twitter (@Vk9consultant) or Facebook page (@ConservationK9consultancy). If you just want to see photos of good dogs you can also look on Instagram (@conservationk9uk)! Additional photos in this article were kindly provided by Michaela Connolly of MCS Canine Photography (@MCSCaninePhotography). This article is by Sophie May Watts, you can find her online at www.sophiemaywatts.com and follow her @sophiemaywatts on Twitter.