Detector Dogs

9 September 2021
Detection dogs have long been used to locate drugs, explosives and other illegal materials for the purposes of quarantine and customs but are now also increasingly being used in wildlife or conservation settings, in Australia and overseas, to locate native and pest animals and plants.

The Final Frontier in Rabbit Control

Detection dogs have long been used to locate drugs, explosives and other illegal materials for the purposes of quarantine and customs but are now also increasingly being used in wildlife or conservation settings, in Australia and overseas, to locate native and pest animals and plants.

If you’ve worked hard to reduce your rabbit numbers and are struggling to find the last remaining population, you may consider using detection dogs as part of your integrated rabbit management approach.

We had a chat with Steve Austin, renowned Australian dog trainer, to help provide you with some more information about how detection dogs are used and how they could assist you in your rabbit management program.

What are Rabbit Detection Dogs?

Rabbit detection dogs are trained to find rabbits, including their scats and warrens via scent.

The use of detection dogs are particularly valuable in areas where other control methods have already been applied and there are few animals remaining; and in areas where the terrain is sensitive or difficult for pest technicians to locate rabbits alone.

Detection dogs work in collaboration with a handler to search an area. Once a rabbit is located, the dog will mark or signal in a way that allows the handler to confirm where a rabbit is hiding. By pinpointing each rabbit’s exact location, it enables the control team to target their rabbit management more effectively and remove them in a more efficient manner saving time and money. The dogs are never used to kill the rabbits or other pests.

Why use Rabbit Detection Dogs?

Rabbits live in all sorts of weird and wonderful places which can sometimes make them tricky to find. Dogs have 100,000 times stronger sense of smell than humans, this makes them excellent at locating rabbits regardless of if they are hiding deep in a warren, under a pile of logs, buried under snow or any other inventive hiding place.

According to Steve the benefit of using dogs is that they aren’t biased.

“I once had a dog that located a rabbit hiding 8ft up a log. A rational human would say a rabbit couldn’t be up there, but dogs don’t think like that.”

When to use Rabbit Detection Dogs?

Detector dogs should be used as a tool in the process of final eradication, after all your other methods have been implemented and population numbers are low.

“Where many people fail in their rabbit eradication programs is that they get rid of 98 per cent of the rabbit population and then stop. However, it only takes two rabbits to breed up to 180 in only 18 months! So, if you are serious about eradication then you must keep going over a number of years until you are absolutely certain you have removed every last rabbit. People and agencies can get disheartened because the most expensive part of any eradication program can often be chasing down the last 3-4 rabbits. That’s why it can be more cost effective to pay a detector dog and a handler to help target your work so that you’re not wasting time and money carrying our blanket control methods unnecessarily in areas where there are no rabbits.”

How to use dogs?

According to Steve, the breed of dog you use is extremely important. They must have a high hunt drive, not kill drive and a willingness to search and search for days, potentially without finding anything.

Steve is currently having incredible success with four very enthusiastic English line Cocker and Springer Spaniels but has also worked with Labradors and Terriers in the past.

Mr Austin’s English Spaniels are highly trained animals who have been taught to sniff out the hiding spots and homes of feral animals without harming what is inside or any other wildlife in the process, using a sophisticated set of commands and signals.

In recent years, Mr Austin’s and his dogs have been deployed to some of Australia’s most sensitive wilderness areas. On Macquarie Island, they helped control rabbits, rats and mice, and in other areas they have helped find threatened birds and detect dangerous weeds. They were also called in to Canberra to protect Mulligans Flat sanctuary’s endangered bettongs.

As well as providing these services with his own four dogs, Steve can also train handlers and dogs for specific needs.

“Control of the dog is critical. We train them using a number of positive reinforcement techniques to find the odour and then stop on a whistle, when you tell them to – no matter what. A well-trained adult dog can take at least 8-9 months to become field proficient.”

Despite his already sophisticated training methods, Steve was quick to point out that dogs are incredibly intelligent animals, and the opportunities are endless for what we can train them to do.

“Most people don’t realise that we are only using and training about 15-20 per cent of their ability. We should push ourselves and our dogs to a much higher standard.”

Knowing the amazing results Steve and his dogs have already achieved, we are fascinated to see what more is possible, so watch this space!

For more information

To learn more about how you could incorporate the use of detector dogs in your rabbit management program contact Heidi.kleinert@agriculture.vic.gov.au or visit www.steveaustindogtrainer.com.

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