Conservation and canine science

PhD candidate, Nick Rutter, is combining his passion for conservation with his interest in canine science

Meet Nick Rutter, a third-year PhD candidate in the Department of Psychology and Counselling at La Trobe’s Bendigo campus.

“I’ve always had two interests: conservation, and psychology. I studied psychology in high school, then a Bachelor of Psychological Science (Honours) at La Trobe. During that degree I met Professor Pauleen Bennett, who studies human-animal relationships, or anthrozoology. I was interested in how animals learn and behave, and was drawn to exploring the cognition of dogs and how they can help people. I completed my Honours year with Professor Bennett, researching the susceptibility of dogs to visual illusions.

I wanted to combine my passion for conservation with my interest in canine science. It led me to a PhD in developing and evaluating a volunteer-based model of conservation detection dog training. Australia has a unique array of native plants and animals, but also one of the highest rates of species extinction in the world. Conservation detection dogs help to detect conservation targets, like koala scat in bushland and invasive weeds in mountain ranges.

I’m exploring how we can work with volunteer handlers to train dogs to help conserve, monitor and protect our native species. I’m also interested in the characteristics of successful and motivated volunteer handlers, and how we can work with community groups and organisations to make conservation detection dogs more accessible. It’s great to have the opportunity to work with a dedicated group of volunteers who love conservation and their dogs.

I moved to La Trobe’s Bendigo campus in 2017. It’s a friendly, relaxed campus in a bushland setting. I love the atmosphere, and that I’m close enough to Melbourne to see family and friends on weekends.

I was also fortunate to start a conservation detection dog consultancy company, Canine Ecological, with two colleagues. I was supported by La Trobe’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Accelerator Program, previously the La Trobe Accelerator Program, which helped kick-start small businesses through a series of workshops, mentoring, legal and grant application assistance, and start-up funding.

When I graduate, I would like to continue working with conservation detection dogs, developing training programs and expanding the applications. I love that my work involves dogs that are working to protect Australia’s rich biodiversity.”

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