Conservation Dogs

Conservation dogs?

What could that be?

It’s an emerging field where conservationists and researchers make the most of the amazing canine power: specially trained sniffer dogs can indeed help protect endangered wild animals and research in general.


Conservation dogs, also referred to as detection dog and sniffer dogs, are the new fashion in conservation biology, ecology, pest control and many other projects benefiting wild animals.

How Can Dogs Help?

We humans rely mostly on our eyes to study our surroundings. That enables us to see lots of things but we are not very good at smelling things.

However, smell can teach us lots about our surroundings. Dogs use smell as their number one sense to get to know their environment. Dogs’ ability to smell could be 2000 times better than ours!

Think of all the things dogs can know that we can’t: they can track a smell through the bush and can communicate with other dogs that have pass the same spot days ago, for instance!

Many people have realised that detection dogs can be much better than humans for many jobs, think of:

  • Police using sniffer dogs to track the smell of criminals or drugs,
  • Army using dogs to detect explosives,
  • Border security using detection dogs to find apples or bananas when they are not allowed to enter the country,
  • And also dogs are now used to identify the presence of diseases in patients, such as cancer (and dogs can detect cancer earlier than X-ray for instance), or used in archaeology (the super dog Migaloo recently discovered a 600 years old aboriginal burial).

In my case, I had been studying koalas for a while and was hoping to find them better and quicker with a little bit of canine help...


A very special conservation dog, Maya, trained on koala poo (yes, that's what's in my hand)

Photo by Kate Adams.

So dogs are amazing sniffer. They know so much about the environment that we are oblivious to.

The problem is: how can a conservation dog tell us what he/she smelled?

How to Train a Conservation Dog – and How to Train a Human!

This is the complicated part.

I teamed up with a wonderful trainer for this: Gary Jackson, MNK9 sniffer dog trainer extraordinaire!

He first had to find the perfect potential conservation dog. A dog that was:

  • Very, VERY interested -or you could say obsessed- in a special object (a tennis ball, in our case).
  • Focused on the human too (so that she listen to the trainer, and later to the handler).
  • Highly motivated: in other words, a dog that keeps at it and does not get bored of a task quickly.

You can see the Wildhelpers interview of Gary Jackson about how to become a consercation dog trainer, the best and hardest bits of the job, and how much of a difference conservation dogs can make to wildlife!



Gary found the perfect candidate in a pound: a little border collie cross that I named Maya (the reason for this is that Maya-Maya means “dog” in an aboriginal language of Australia. Very original to call your dog “dog”, isn’t it?).


You might wonder why such a clever dog had ended-up in a pound? Well, that's actually very common. The best conservation dogs are usually not very liked as a family pet. This is because they are obsessed by their toys, and can relentlessly focused on it - any time, day and night! They are highly motivated and energetic dogs: they never stop! That means they are a handfull, and all that energy and excitement has to be channelled into something: for Maya, looking for koala poo!

Maya went into training in Gary’s very capable hand. Gary has trained many dogs, including a vast array of conservation dogs, disease detection dog and the world famous archaeological dog, Migaloo.

Basically through Gary’s training Maya was made to associate a specific smell with her reward: a tennis ball.

Thus Maya, who is in love with her tennis ball, has one goal: find the specific smell as quickly as she can, so that she gets her ball!

The smell for Maya was that of koala poo, which was what I was interested in - If you think I have a problem, you’ve seen nothing: check out the story about my obsession with animal poo. I will say it again here: poo is amazing! Through wild animal poos you can study so many things: diet, genetics, hormones...

Maya was also trained to indicate to me that she had indeed found a poo: therefore she should be given her ball! Now! Give me the ball!


Maya 100% focused on her tennis ball in a demonstration in front of future conservationists.

Photo Berndt Janse Van Rensburg


Possibly the hardest part of the training for Gary was to teach me how to understand what Maya was saying!

But we got there, and by a mix of Maya’s indication and my reading of her posture, we are communicating pretty well!


Then my own conservation dog, Maya, graduated to the outdoors: I needed to be sure she could be safely looking for koala poo in the wild without ever being a risk to the wildlife. Otherwise, I would simply not be able to take her out in the real world to find koalas...

Thankfully she passed that test with honours! She just ignores anything but the koala poo, and her ball!

Why Have a Conservation Dog to Find Koala Poo?

In Australia, the situation of the koala is becoming more worrying every day: koalas have just became classified vulnerable and their number is going down very quickly.

We dramatically need to study koala numbers to keep an eye on how much they are in trouble and to protect them. For instance:

  • Before a piece of land is developed, we must ensure it is not an important koala habitat,
  • Koala populations must be monitored regularly to measure any change up or down, otherwise no one will know if a population is in trouble or even threaten with extinction,
  • When we do act to protect koalas, we need to survey the number of koalas to measure if what we’ve done is actually doing any good.

But there is a huge problem: it’s extremely hard to know where a koala is.

  1. First, it is often takes a long time to find a koala because they are not many of them around,
  2. Second, koalas are sometime extremely hard to spot! Koalas are incredibly clever at hiding: their colour acts perfect camouflage, they won’t move or make any noise that could attract attention and they can be very high in trees sitting in a clump of very dense foliage. Personally, after years of koala research, they can still fool me!

Here Comes our Koala-Sniffer Dog to the Rescue!

I can spend hours and days LOOKING for koalas, while Maya the detection dog can SMELL their poo in minutes!

You have much more chance to find koala poos than a koala because:

  • As I said, koalas are very hard to spot to start with! But...
  • One koala can produce 150 poos a day!
  • Once the koala has moved to another tree, the poo stays there for a long time!


And if there is a koala poo, there has been a koala there!

That helps knowing what is koala habitat or not.

With the help of my koala sniffer dog, I can answer research and conservation questions more accurately, more rapidly and with more certainty.

And this is not coming one bit too early to help our koalas!

Detection Dog Maya goes Famous

Maya has won the hearts of many people - pretty much anyone she meets, really!

And amongst these, a few journalists and TV presenters!

So Maya has started a career in the press and on TV. Her latest shoot was with Australian TV show "Totally Wild".

Maya in front of the camera, with star of the show "Totally Wild" Alex

Detection Dogs: a Big Hope for Conservation

I think conservation dogs are the future for many areas in research and conservation of wildlife. I know of detection dogs already helping in so many great projects!

Invasive species detection dogs

In Macquarie Islands, detection dogs have been deployed to help getting rid of a terrible invasive species: the rabbit. 

Like everyone else, I love rabbits and think they are very cute - in their natural environment. The problem with rabbits is they are very successful breeder and their numbers rapidly reaches plague proportion.

So much so that they are endangering precious and fragile ecosystems in Macquarie Island, the last island of greenerie between Australia and Antartica. Because of this position, Macquarie Island serves as a breeding spot for numerous sea birds, seals, etc. Also it harbours some very special plants such as the Macquarie cabbage.

Five conservation dogs currently live on Macquarie Island in a bet to recover the pristine ecosystems of this unique island.


In mainland Australia, they are targeting invasive foxes or cane toads, so that they are not destroying habitat where they have been introduced by humans.

Endangered species detection dogs

Detection dogs help find, study and protect animals that are very rare (and thus too hard to detect by normal visual surveys).

Such projects occured in New Zealand, where detection dogs were used to locate kiwis and kakapos, to catch them and relocate them to the safety of islands. These two flightless birds were highly endangered following the introduction by European settlers of a whole suite of new predators - they are many: stoats, ferrets, weasels, rats, dogs and cats...

This project started the continuous use of conservation dogs in New Zealand, and is credited for saving these birds. What is truly amazing is that this detection dog project started in... 1890!!

Well done New Zealand!

The number of wild animals conservation dogs have help just keeps growing: koalas -obviously!- kiwis and kakapos as we just say, tigers, orcas, fishers, spotted owls, bears, wolves, caribous, giant armadillos, giant anteaters, desert tortoises, brown tree snakes, seals, pumas, jaguars, Pacific pocket mice. Amazing, hey!!

Conservations dogs against wildlife traffic

Sniffer dogs are a common sight in Airport but now they are used not only for drugs or fruits, but as a powerful tool against illegal animal trade, for instance animals taken from the wild for the illegal pet trade, traditional medicinal use or jewlery.

At Airports, detection dogs have found items such as:

  • bear bile and gall bladders (traditional Chinese medicinals),
  • snakes,
  • seal penises,
  • baby monkeys,
  • elephant ivory,
  • and rhino horns.

Sniffer dogs are also used to check boats, where they have been responsible for confiscating smuggled shark fins (used in shark-fin soup) and sea cucumbers. 

Guard Conservation Dogs

  • This is quite a different type of conservation dogs, which are not detection dogs but are involved in protecting endangered species directly by guarding them.
  • For instance there is a wonderful story of two Maremmas dogs, Eudy and Tula, that are protecting little penguins against foxes on Southern Australia’s Middle Island.

    There used to be more than a thousand penguins breeding on the island until foxes were introduced. They ate their way though the population, so much so that only 4 indivuals were counted before Eudy and Tula were named as their guardians. In 2013, the penguin population is around 200, while not one fox attack has occurred under Eudy and Tula's shift!


    Another example were guard dogs can help wildlife conservation is by decreasing human-wildlife conflicts.

    In Namibia, guard dogs are given to farmers to protect their livelihood. Cheetahs that used to be killed by farmers when approaching their livestock are now driven away by barking dogs, reducing conflicts and the number of killed cheetahs dramatically.

    You can find more info on the Cheetah Conservation Fund's Livestock Guarding Dog Program, and learn all about the amazing impact Anatolian Shepherds and Kangal Dogs are making in Namibia.

    You Want your Own Conservation Dog now, Don't You?

    If you need the services of conservation dogs for your project, there are organisations you can talk to, for instance:

    Conservation Dogs offers detection dog services in UK and other countries as required,

    The Center for Conservation Biology "Conservation Canine" program has many scat detection dogs in the USA and runs program across the globe,

    And obviously Maya's trainer Gary Jackson from MNK9 for conservation dogs in Australia, Wildhelpers had also an exclusive interview with Gary, where you can learn all about being a conservation dog trainer.

    Dogs are sometimes seen as a danger to wildlife – and for good reasons!

    In Australia dogs are a major threat to koalas.

    But dogs can now also be used to protect wildlife: the amazing abilities of detection dogs can really make a difference by helping research and conservation projects.

    Learn more about Maya, the koala detection dog