Dogs to help detect vulnerable species

Dogs will be used by La Trobe University researchers to find evidence of Greater Gilders at Hanging Rock and the Wombat State Forest, in a bid to better protect vulnerable species in the area.

Owned by local community volunteers, the dogs have undergone a specialised five-week training program at the Bendigo campus, teaching them to recognise the scent of Greater Glider faeces, or ‘scats’.

The study is part of a project led by a team from La Trobe’s Anthrozoology Research Group Dog Lab that trains volunteers and their dogs to find evidence of endangered animals using scent detection.

PhD candidate, Mr Nick Rutter, said dogs are better equipped than humans for this type of conservation work.

“Currently, the most common way to find evidence of Greater Gliders is to search for them at night with strong torches, looking for eyeshine,” Mr Rutter said.

“However if an animal is hiding – or we don’t happen to walk right past it – we can miss them and get a distorted view of their prevalence in the area.”

“Dogs, on the other hand, can cover large areas, including challenging terrain, and take us straight to the evidence.”

“Scats are also really useful in conservation science as they can be used to estimate population, and provide information about an animal’s diet and health, and can even allow you to get samples of their DNA,” Mr Rutter said.

Mr Rutter is conducting the Hanging Rock study – in partnership with Macedon Ranges Shire Council and Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary – as part of broader project that involves training dogs to find evidence of endangered or invasive species that are otherwise difficult to find.

His team are also training dogs to find turtle nests, so that conservation workers can cover them with mesh, as protection from foxes during the nesting season.

14 dogs, of a variety of breeds, have been working with professional trainers at La Trobe’s Bendigo campus for almost two years. Their owners are interested local volunteers in the Bendigo community.

This project at Hanging Rock is the dogs’ first real assignment, outside of the training facility.

The research team will be accompanied by Macedon Ranges Shire Council staff, who will ensure the reserve’s sensitive environment is not impacted while the conservation work is conducted.