Sniffing out koalas to protect them from harm

The author with recruits Archie and Billy.Koalas are elusive creatures and difficult to detect with the human eye as they spend much of their lives asleep high up in trees, camouflaged.

This is a particular challenge when it comes to spotting them prior to land clearing and plantation logging. Human spotters often miss them, which often leads to them being injured or killed. After bushfires, koalas are often only found weeks afterwards as they flee the fire by climbing high into the trees and are left burned and starving.

This challenge has led the University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland to look to dogs to spot koalas.

Dogs’ abilities to locate wildlife have been time and again trialled against humans’, with dogs sense of smell clearly being more efficient, accurate and less biased. Dogs can also follow a trail of scent carried by the wind further than the sight of the object. And smell is not obscured by dense foliage or ground cover. 

The University is establishing a Detection Dogs for Conservation programme, the first of its kind in Australia. IFAW is proud to be working with the team on its ground-breaking project to recruit and train a Koala Detection Dog. IFAW supports a similar initiative in the US called Working Dogs for Conservation.

The Detection Dogs for Conservation team includes (L-R) the author (IFAW), Romane, Kate and Celine (Uni) and Naomi (IFAW) with dogs (L-R) Archie, Billy, Maya and Baxter.

The successful candidate will be trained to detect actual koalas rather than just their scat to more accurately detect the animals. The dog will follow in the footsteps of Maya, the first and highly successful koala scat detection dog.

So what makes a good koala detection dog?

The best detection dogs usually make the worst pets… As a result, all of the programme’s detection dogs are rescued from shelters. So not only are they saving wildlife, they are giving a second chance to abandoned dogs.

Dog trainer Sarah Fyffe, who has worked training police and assistance dogs, is leading the search. She compares it to a training academy with recruits. “To get the ideal candidate we may need to test and train up to ten dogs to get to 100 per cent the right one. Those dogs that don’t make the grade we are committed to finding suitable and loving homes for them.” Sarah is currently trawling shelters and pounds for potential recruits to join the training academy.

Who are the current recruits?

Archie – Archie is around 18 months old. He was rescued from a pound in Cootamundra NSW, after being found as a stray on the road. He is thought to be a short-haired German pointer. Archie is highly ball driven, very well-mannered with other dogs and soft and accepting with people. When Archie first entered the pound he immediately introduced himself to the staff with a big kiss on the face. He lacks a bit of confidence and needs lots of personal feedback from the team. His favourite thing is swimming in dams.

Billy – Billy is an eight-month-old Labrador, Border Collie cross who was surrendered. Billy is very self-confident and is already showing signs of being a great koala detection dog. He loves chewing shoes and has gone through about seven pairs already! His favourite pastime is playing in his swimming pool or with the hose.

Billy Jean – Billy Jean is a one-year-old Kelpie cross, rescued from a Sydney shelter. She is quite striking with her enormous ears and is the craziest ball-obsessed of all the dogs. Her special gift is digging up worms from the ground!

We will bring you updates on the dogs’ progress so watch this space.

--JS

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