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Conservation Detection Dog Handling: one Dream Job to another

I work with dogs who find: koalas, quolls, weeds, cats, foxes, rabbits, rats, mice, cane toads, birds… and the list goes on.

When I was 19 I landed my dream job, marine mammal keeper. This was a brilliant job that shaped my understanding of animal behaviour, training and conservation and introduced me to my wife. 


During the 12 years in that field, I met a number of detection dog trainers from the army, police and biosecurity. Their stories and experiences humbled and inspired me. After researching the industry for years and dabbling in some detection dog training on the side, I made the full switch. My experience in training, good results at dog trials, a lot of relevant qualifications and some brilliant mentors, meant I had a relatively smooth transition into this new and exciting field

Whenever anyone asks me what I do for a crust, they are usually surprised to hear that such a job exists and then I get asked the following questions: 

Who do you work for and what do you do? 

I am a contractor to a variety of government agencies, environmental consultants, and land owners. They usually want me to find a specific animal or plant, or any evidence that they may have been present.
 
I try to take at least two dogs to every job, and rotate them throughout the day. 

The dogs may individually cover up to 30km in a day. Depending on what we are looking for and the environment we are working in, we may “clear” or check 400 acres in a day. 

This means the dogs (and I) need to be incredibly fit and focused for long periods of time

At the end of each day, every dog gets a health check, a groom and a big feed. Once they are sorted, I usually write a report of our findings. For every week in the field it takes about a week of planning, sometimes a lot more.

What is the best part of your job?

Apart from all the amazing places and the wonderful people I meet, it would have to be when we find something rare that has taken days, weeks and in some cases months to find. If it were easy, ‘every man and their dog’ would do it. It’s bloody exhausting going for extended periods of time finding nothing, BUT when that find comes, it’s exhilarating! 
It might only be one tiny plant, or a piece of poo, but when that hard-working little dog finds something for you, it’s quite an emotional experience. On more than one occasion I’ve been fighting back tears laying on the ground, exhausted, praising a spaniel as it parades a well-earned tennis ball around, dancing and wiggling their bum, knowing they have done something very, very special. 

What kind of dogs do you use?

Typically working line Springer and Cocker Spaniels, (working line dogs are very different from “show line” or pet dogs). They come from parents that have proven themselves as safe and hard-working dogs, they are usually field trial champions or professional detection dogs. 
These dogs have been bred for hundreds of years to hunt, which for my line of work is a perfect genetic predisposition. Don’t let the word “hunt” put you off, these dogs weren’t bred to kill, just to find. This means that when they do find an animal their instincts are more inclined to stop, not chase

It doesn’t mean other breeds can’t do the job, I have other dogs we use for various detection jobs. However, in my experience the stamina, reliability and work ethic of a spaniel is unrivalled

What kind of training do the dogs need?

The dogs typically undergo 6 to 12 months of training before they are close to field ready. As a baseline they must perform the following tasks off lead:

1. Target odour(s).
2. A perfect, and I mean perfect recall.
3. A "Stop" command, and usually an automatic stop if they flush or cross the path of an animal.
4. “Stay” with the handler out of sight.
5. Basic Healing and directional cues.
6. Desensitisation to wildlife, people, vehicles and anything else they may encounter in their field.

All of the dogs I use have undergone an assessment process through the Canine Detection Certification Organisation. It tests and records all of the above criteria as well as the temperament.

How can you be sure the dogs won’t chase or harm any animals? Particularly the ones they are searching for!

This is the main reason why I suggest clients only use professionally trained and certified dogs. The entire industry could be damaged by the actions of one poorly trained dog, so in my mind we can never take this too seriously. 

I put my dogs through incredible drills before they are allowed into the field. I have a huge network of animal trainers I call on for favours when I’m training a detector dog. By the time the puppy is 16 weeks, it has worked around more species than it is ever likely to encounter in the field. We make our training sessions harder than anything they will experience on a job and maintain that throughout the dog’s life.

How can I get into it?

There are no short cuts, but it is a rapidly emerging field and the use of dogs is becoming more common and streamlined across many industries. The best way to get into it, is to be affiliated or work for an environmental consultancy, or a government agency that does already or may wish to use detection dogs. Qualifications and experience in dog training, science, ecology, biology, biosecurity, pest and weed control will make you are more valuable contractor or employee.
Steve Austin (Left), Ryan Tate (Right) and Springer Spaniels

If you are looking to have your own conservation dog I’d HIGHLY suggest engaging a professional and experienced conservation dog trainer to train the dog, as well as teach you the art of working with the dog. The majority of successful detection dog and handler teams have either acquired a professionally trained dog or have a dog trainer amongst their team.

How many targets can one dog find?

The dog’s nose is virtually limitless. What limits the dog is our ability to communicate clearly with them. For the sake of the dog and the handler we try and keep their targets to either a few species or perhaps a specific “concept”. For example, we may train a dog to find predators or we may train a dog to be very specific. e.g. Just find Koala, ignore everything else! Either way it needs to be efficient for the task at hand.

Tell us about some of the dogs you work with.

Taylor

She is my million-dollar dog, a 2 year-old working line English Springer Spaniel that I trained from 8 weeks of age. She finds Koalas, Quolls, Foxes, Cats and Rabbits.

She is an absolute trouble maker at home, revs up all the other dogs and steals their toys. Whenever possible Taylor is by the side of my 3 year-old son, she adores him. She is our best dog in the field and our biggest pain in the arse at home!
Hillary Cherry with Sally (Left) and Ryan Tate with Connor (Right)

Connor: 

Finds four species of invasive plant such as Hawk weed, which is the most potentially devastating plant to the Australian Alpine region and is listed for eradication. 

He also finds an aquatic weed called Alligator weed, which involves a lot of swimming and often Connor scenting the running water to find it. Connor and I work with huge teams of researchers, rangers, weeds officers, volunteers, drones and pilots. At home Connor is a delight, he is calm, quiet and always obliging.


Sally

Is a pint sized 5 year old working line Cocker Spaniel. She is trained to find three species of weed. Sally does incredibly intense, tight search patterns right under your feet. She is brilliant at finding tiny plants, even under the ground or snow. 

She is one of a few dogs that has four handlers: Hillary a weeds expert from National Parks, Steve Austin who trained Sally and Connor, Claire Chiotti another trainer and myself. She is affectionate and manipulative, if she doesn’t like what we are doing she plays dead until someone pays her attention. 

Her favourite animal in the world is our big Malinois Rafa, she absolutely adores him, yet keeps him in line. 

Rafa:

Our Malinois, not your average conservation dog but one of the most trainable and fit dogs on the planet. 

He is often a test pilot and a back-up dog. He can learn to find anything in seconds. We use him to see if something is possible, we test out new concepts and conduct trials with him. 

So far he has been able to find every single test we have thrown at him, and excelled. We are thinking of putting Rafa into politics. He would love to work all day, it doesn’t matter what the task is, he’s just into it. Because of his versatile nature we also use Rafa for education, workshops, film and television. 

Becky

Is Taylor’s sister and like her sister is an exceptional detector dog. She is owned by Steve Austin, one of my mentors, who allows me to use some of his dogs for large projects. Her list of target species and significant finds is outrageous. 

She is particularly brilliant at finding Cane Toads (and not touching them) and any pest mammal, making her one of the busiest dogs in the country. Unlike her sister she is well mannered at home and always brings the tennis ball directly back to your hand, which is just a delight!


When it comes to conservation work, it’s not just one hero dog at the front line, saving the world. The dogs are part of an extensive team of experts who are often working on the project for years before a handler and a dog touch the ground, they will have all the latest equipment and technology relevant to the task, however the dogs do possess a skill set that no piece of equipment is yet to replicate and for that I will be forever grateful.

Threatened Species Day with the conservation superstars!

My opportunities in this field would not be possible without the help and guidance of a number of brilliant people and organisations: Jennifer Tate, Vicki and Steve Austin, Hillary Cherry, Kate Sutton, Claire Chiotti, Robyn Stark, Elio Bombonato and all the Zoo, Wildlife Rescue and Research Organisations around Australia who provide us with poo, fur, feathers and advice on habitats and animal behaviour.

written by Ryan Tate, October 2018 (all rights reserved)

Ryan Tate is a highly experienced animal trainer (B.M.S, Cert. IV TAE, Cert. III Captive Animals, S.O.A. Dog Training). He has been professionally training animals for the last 14 years and recreationally since he was a child. He is a qualified Marine Biologist, Zookeeper, Dog Trainer and Assessor who now specialises in conservation detection dogs.

Ryan has experience training dogs, marine mammals, sharks, penguins, reptiles, birds and native Australian mammals. Ryan regularly appears on TV and radio for his expertise on training animals including a 2 part Series on the ABC Science Show “Catalyst: Making Dogs Happy”.

Ryan runs Tate Animal Training Enterprises with his wife Jennifer, also an experienced and accomplished trainer.
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