Big job for top dogs
They need to have the right stuff – instinct, skill and attitude.
New Zealand is a world leader in training dogs for conservation. And as more of our islands become pest-free – thanks to pest eradication programmes – dogs play a vital part in monitoring and control.
The Conservation Dog Programme has dogs trained to find both predators or threatened species such as kiwi, teal and petrel and alerting handlers to their whereabouts.
The Bay of Islands dogs are part of a small nationwide team of predator dogs.
Cody has been certified since June 2011. Tike, Teak and Fern are still juniors.
They are all border terrier/fox terrier cross-breeds – best for the job of tracking down predators such as rodents and stoats.
Their handlers are Conservation Department staffers Andrew Blanshard and Angela Newport as well as Guardians of the Bay of Islands volunteer Adriana Rogowski.
It's as important to train the handler to understand the dog as it is to train the animal.
A dog in training will undergo two tests.
The first is an obedience exam. Within six months of passing this they must sit the second test which combines obedience and target (prey) specific training.
"They need to be so hot about their target species that if a rat dog smells so much as a rat dropping, it will be like Christmas for them," Angela says.
The dogs need to be hardy. They have to be willing to get into a helicopter, travel in boats and scramble through gorse and up and down cliffs for several days at a time.
They may work up to 10 days in a row, demanding a great degree of concentration and determination from both dog and handler.
The dog has to prove it has the right stuff and their handler has to be willing to dedicate about two hours per day for two years to get their animal certified – and to meet the usual costs of owning a dog.
That means many hours on top of regular work.
Training the dog is all about praise. And for the handler it's all about reward.
"When you have put in all that effort to train a rat dog, it's hugely rewarding when the dog shows you where a rat is," Adriana says.
Dogs get only two chances to qualify. Not all pass the final test. If they make the grade their certificate has to be renewed every three years, involving another test.
It may come as a surprise that the dogs aren't the killers. Their job is to tell their handlers where the target is so traps can be laid in the right place.
The search can be frustrating on a pest-free island. It took Cody five days to find a female rat pregnant with five babies on Poroporo near Otehei Bay.
"A good dog is an asset – it's our job to listen to what it's telling us. The dog knows what it's smelling. It's a matter of understanding the message – there can be a lot of deduction and detective work involved," Andrew says.
Bay of Islands conservation dogs have notched up 70 days' work this summer.