Dogs with Jobs #1

02:40, Sep 17 2012

Humans have always had a love affair with dogs. However, it turns out that dogs in New Zealand can also be nature's best friend*, given the right training, genetics and enormous amount of hours put in by their owners/handlers. 

There are a variety of canine rangers working in New Zealand, all of which play a crucial role in helping protect our native wildlife. I didn't reckon I could do them justice by writing a blog about all of them at once, so I'd like to begin a series of "Dogs with jobs" blog posts. This week, we'll start with Manu the lizard dog.

Manu is a six-year-old border collie cross who (as her breeding suggests) is an "eye dog". Not to be confused with "seeing-eye dogs", eye-dogs have been used in New Zealand for over a century as working farm dogs. (Our love affair with these dogs is evidenced by the massive popularity of A Dog's Show and of course the beloved "Dog" from Footrot Flats).

Manu doesn't crawl on her belly staring down sheep until they go into pens, but she does have a crucial role to play in the conservation of some of our least-known animals - our reptiles. Manu has been trained by her herpetologist handler Marieke Lettink as a lizard-detecting dog.

The key to being any kind of detector-dog is the discipline required to indicate or react to your target, but ignore all of the other wonderful sights, smells and sounds around you. Manu must only react to lizards, and her indication is to freeze, staring down her target, not letting her eye off the ball until Marieke can identify Manu's find. That, of course, and being trained not to eat your target is probably important too.


When I first met Manu, it was hard for me to get my head around this - how can a dog detect a gecko, especially the cryptically coloured geckos we have in New Zealand? Every time I have viewed geckos in the wild, within a matter of seconds even the most gaudy gecko (our daytime geckos are all bright green, making Kermit pale in comparison) can melt into the matching undergrowth. But the nose has it.  I can't smell anything distinctive about a gecko, but clearly Manu can - and therein lies her value. 

Nowhere was this made more plain to me than earlier this year on the Denniston Plateau on the West Coast. Forest & Bird had decided to hold a Bioblitz and more than 150 scientists and volunteers converged on the plateau over a weekend to meticulously record the wildlife that might be found there. I was helping to produce a short film on the wonder of the Denniston Plateau, and we wanted to film Manu and Marieke finding geckos. No luck while watching them look for geckos, so we decided to get a shot of them walking across the landscape from afar. Halfway through their walk, Manu stopped rigid and refused to budge, nose pressed near a shrub that had already been well and truly searched by her scientist (and lizard expert) owner.  Marieke, however, trusted her dog and fell to her hands and knees next to her dog and hey presto - a BEAUTIFUL Westland green gecko was right in front of her nose. 

This Westland green gecko may stand out on the sandstone, but put it in a nearby bonsai manuka, and it will simply disappear into its surroundings. Photo: Nicola Toki

Manu's find was certainly a big excitement of the day - and to watch a dog that knew her job, never once dropped her focus and provided some significant conservation information was a joy.

Did you know dogs could detect lizards? Ever seen a conservation canine ranger in action? Has your dog ever pulled a trick like that? I'd like to know about it.

* However, DO remember that without training, control and responsible dog ownership, dogs can also be native wildlife's worst nightmare. Dogs in particular have had a huge impact on kiwi populations in Northland with one dog reportedly killing more than 500 kiwi in a period of a few months. Pug, pig dog or poodle - any breed can kill kiwi, so keep your dogs under control please!

P.S. I'm thinking about a giveaway for the best nature blog ideas from you guys - and wondering where you've got to lately!?  Best idea/comment gets a great mystery prize (promise it won't be a manky dead ferret or anything like that)!  If you'd like to share your favourite nature images and stories and suggestions come and join me at the In Our Nature Facebook page.