Back to the basics with conservation detection dogs: fundamentals for success

27 June 2019

DeMatteo, Karen; Davenport, Barbara; Wilson, Louise

The use of detection dogs in conservation studies has expanded across species, conditions, and habitats. However, it is incorrect to assume the potential associated with these surveys is automatically linked to the dog’s sense of smell. Instead, an accurate detection dog rate is directly linked to many caveats in dog-handler training. Selecting a detection dog is directly linked to a clearly defined study design and must balance various factors, including: olfactory ability, physical structure, energy level, personality, and social traits. Selection of training samples should ensure sufficient variation in target and nontarget species, independent of whether the goal is to locate evidence of the animal (e.g., scat, feather) or the physical animal. Just as not all dogs are appropriate, not all persons are suitable for this type of work, as the handler must be consistent and attentive to details with an incredible physical and mental endurance to sustain the time in the field. Testing in controlled and field situations can determine if the personalities of the dog and handler balance, with time needed for each to gain the ability to “read” the other. Proper training for the dog and handler is essential, with special attention paid to the innate reactions of the latter. After training of the team is complete, testing trials should mimic field conditions. While there is no single model to becoming a handler in wildlife detection dog studies, incorporating these fundamental concepts with professional training can help optimize sample detection rate, minimize handler and dog frustration, and maximize overall success with this technique.