Dogs are our best friends and loyal companions, but in many instances their impact is far greater. Some dogs are trained to perform indispensable services that help people and other animals live and thrive. Their extraordinary sense of smell, intelligence, and unwavering loyalty enable them to make contributions that range from sniffing out endangered and vulnerable wildlife so we can better protect them to saving human lives during search and rescue missions. These are just a few examples of incredible dogs and the impactful and sometimes surprising jobs that they perform.
Rescuing endangered species
With their keen sense of smell, dogs excel in tracking animals, which can aid researchers and conservationists in the protection of endangered species and the monitoring of their habitats.
For instance, following the 2019-2020 Australian bushfires, which killed more than 6,000 koalas in New South Wales alone, IFAW x UniSC koala detection dog Bear found more than 100 surviving koalas in the charred landscape.
Bear is trained to detect live koalas through the scent of their fur, while his teammates Billie-Jean and Austin (aka Dangerpaws) help sniff out koala scats, which are nearly invisible to the human eye on the forest floor. Since the fires, the team has been collecting koala scats for analysis to help give researchers a better picture of the status of the koalas’ health and to aid with predictions on how their populations will recover.
Stopping wildlife crime
Did you know some dogs are pros at countering wildlife crime? Their tracking skills can be harnessed to detect trafficked animals or animal parts.
In the Americas, for example, where jaguars are increasingly threatened by poaching due to demand for their fangs, bones, and other body parts for traditional medicines and jewelry, dogs have been put on the case. As part of IFAW’s Operation Jaguar project to combat illegal trade in jaguars, two detection dogs—Bruce and Boris—were trained to use their superb sense of smell to help track down jaguar parts in boxes, packages, cars, and containers and ultimately disrupt wildlife trafficking.
In Zimbabwe, two puppies named Themba and Wana are the newest recruits to the K9 unit for our partners at ZimParks, an agency that works hard at protecting the country’s wildlife. The dogs will be tasked with tracking potential poachers in Zimbabwe’s largest nature reserve, Hwange National Park, but only once their training—which involves being rewarded with a ball when they find the right scent—is complete.
Dog therapy for prisoners
Canine companions offer invaluable emotional support, and some have unique skills in aiding individuals dealing with mental health challenges or trauma and reducing stress and anxiety. One such dog—a five-year-old cocker spaniel named George—was honoured with one of IFAW’s 2022 Animal Action Awards for his incredible work as a therapy dog for prisoners.
George’s non-judgmental listening is invaluable for prisoners who are either learning English for the first time or trying to achieve basic entry qualifications. George has also been involved in palliative care, seeing prisoners through to end of life and making their families feel valued. He also worked in stroke recovery and visited prisoners suffering from low mood or suicidal thoughts to encourage them on the road to recovery. Weekly visits to more difficult prisoners to perform tricks and play tug of war served as an incentive to maintain good behaviour.
Search and rescue
Search and rescue operations benefit immensely from the keen senses and agility of dogs, who can locate missing persons in disaster-stricken areas, providing hope and relief during critical times.
A spaniel named Davey is a beaming example. This six-year-old springer spaniel has been serving with the Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service in the UK for almost five years. Davey’s responsibilities include attending explosions and helping police locate high-risk missing people. His first life-saving mission was in Turkey where he searched for earthquake survivors with UK International Search and Rescue alongside his handler. He was one of the recipients of IFAW’s 2023 Animal Action Awards.
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