Conservation canine detection work is a collaborative field to work in. It takes all types of people to make the work happen. Biologists collaborate with handlers to determine the most logical target odor to locate. Managers work with both biologists and handlers to coordinate logistics. Educators and public relations experts share with the public why the work we all do is lending an important hand to conservation. As we like to say at MCDI, Conservation is Connected.
Our next interview is with a program manager from the Department of Conservation in New Zealand, Helen Neale. This national government organization oversees the conservation management of one third of New Zealand’s land held in public ownership for the people of New Zealand. Considering that there are a great number of species unique to New Zealand, conservation is an incredibly important task.
Helen’s story showcases how working with conservation dogs doesn't have to be a premeditated goal, but a fortuitous happenstance (which very much mimics how MCDI’s Director of Programs, Amy, became involved in the industry, too!).
Where is your organization located and where in the world does your team work?
I am based in Tauranga, New Zealand, but my team works across New Zealand—from the Kermadecs (north of New Zealand) down to the Sub Antarctic Islands such as Campbell and the Auckland islands.
Tell us a bit about the working dogs you work with.
The team is made up of a wide range of dog breeds—typically, our pest detection dogs are smaller dogs such as terriers, jack russell crosses who look for pests such as rodents (rats, mice) and mustelids (ferrets, stoats, weasels) which are a significant threat to our native species. We also have dogs trained to find Spartina, an invasive estuarine plant, argentine ants (introduced ant) and plague skinks. Our species detection dogs are usually larger dogs such as English setters, labrador crosses. We currently have 81 fully certified dogs in the programme with a number of additional dogs in training.
What is your professional background? How did you get into working with conservation dogs?
My original training was firstly as an ecologist and then more recently as a resource management planner before I moved into management. I do not actually have a dog myself but have a number of friends who do. This role came up in mid-2019 and I really liked the sound of it so applied and here I am!
What is one wow-factor thing you like to share with people about your work?
Our dogs are making a significant difference in the conservation of our threatened species. There have been a number of times when one of our teams detected a pest aboard a vessel that was about to head to one of our pest-free islands. In doing this, our teams prevented the deaths of some of our very special bird species, many of which are ground dwellers and easy targets for pests such as rats and stoats.
Do you have a favorite target odor/species to locate the most?
I think we all like to find harder targets such as stoats that typically may not respond well to trapping regimes.
What does your typical work day look like when at ‘home’?
Every day is different for the handlers. I have a team of seven full-time handlers currently; six are permanent and one on a two-year fixed term. Generic duties for pest detection dogs include biosecurity inspections (e.g checking ferries, barges for pests going to pest free islands) and surveillance of pest-free islands; for species detection dogs searching out native species to undertake monitoring of them—fit transmitters, undertake health checks, count numbers. There is always paperwork and report writing too!
My daily tasks include running fortnightly team phone meetings to stay connected, monthly operating reviews with each team member, regular meetings with our national partner, Kiwibank, weekly leadership team phone meetings with my two Senior Advisors and Senior Ranger, carrying out learning and review exercises where field work may not have gone as planned, ensuring the team are up to date with the national context for our organisation, reviewing our Standard Operating Procedures, report writing and funding applications, etc ! Also supporting the team in running our training and assessment 2 day camps (three times a year) as well as one national hui for all of our Conservation Dog handlers including contractors.
Have you ever had an interesting animal encounter in the field? Meeting a takahe when out walking on one of our pest-free islands at 10.30 pm – very special as it just carried on with its business and ignored us!
What advice do you have for people interested in entering the conservation dog field? Spend some time getting to know the challenges our natural environment is facing by reading about and exploring our special places. Then, spend some time talking with wonderful community groups to see if a conservation dog could support the possible work.
What is one piece of equipment you never go to work without? My phone! It allows me to keep in touch with the team, capture magic moments with my camera and take emails/calls in some interesting places.
Learn more about Conservation Dogs New Zealand and follow them along on their sniffing adventures:
Falco the Conservation Dog-ion-Training's Blog: https://blog.doc.govt.nz/2018/04/26/falco-the-conservation-dog-in-training/