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Detector Dog Pups Urgently Need Foster Carers

50 years protecting Australia’s borders ...

Next year the Australian Border Force Detector Dog Program (DDP) is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Since 1969, Australian Border Force (ABF) detector dogs have played an important role in protecting Australia from prohibited imports and exports.

The DDP has evolved significantly since its inception and is continually striving to improve its breeding, development, training and deployment methods.

The Program began with two black Labrador Retrievers in Sydney in the late sixties. The Labradors were followed by two German Shepherds. German Shepherds were used up until 1978 when a review found that using only German Shepherd puppies was too expensive and slow, so they were replaced by trained abandoned dogs from dog pounds and animal shelters.

The first DDP training unit was formed in 1979 and worked out of an empty wool shed in Barton, Canberra. In 1984, a special DDP training centre was built in Fyshwick, Canberra, and in the early nineties Labrador Retrievers became the dog of choice for the program. In 1993, a pilot breeding program was developed in partnership with the University of Melbourne and Royal Guide Dog Association.

In December 2011, the DDP took up residence at the newly built National Detector Dog Program Facility located in Bulla, Victoria. The facility is the headquarters for the Detector Dog Program, providing breeding, juvenile dog development, training and the management of the quality assurance process. The facility ensures that the Detector Dog Program will be able to continue to service the needs of the Australian Border Force, as well as domestic and international agencies, well into the future.

Today, ABF detector dogs are trained to detect drugs, currency, explosives, firearms and tobacco.

The Breeding Program


The breeding program began in Melbourne in 1993. In excess of three thousand pups have been bred and developed to be trained as detector dogs. 

The founding stud dog was named Ajax. Ajax worked as a detector dog for three years before becoming the founding stud dog of the breeding program. A statue of Ajax stands proudly at the front of the National Detector Dog Program Facility in Bulla, Victoria.

Breeding pairs are carefully selected in order to produce a dog that is highly driven, bold and outgoing, possesses a strong hunt drive and thrives on play reward.

The focus is on balancing the need to breed a dog that has all the genetic traits that are required to produce a quality detector dog, whilst minimising the risk of any hereditary medical conditions that may be passed on to future generations.

Early Puppy Development & Socialisation

The early pup development program covers pups from birth to 9 weeks of age. This is a crucial phase of their development and is the foundation of their learning experiences.

During this critical period pups are exposed to age appropriate social and environmental experiences set to develop and challenge their learning. 


Development activities include hunt and retrieval games, manual handling conditioning and exposure to different sounds, surfaces and sights.

These development and assessment activities are designed to provide each pup with the best possible opportunity to reach their genetic potential as detector dogs.

The Detector Dog Foster Carer Program

The Detector Dog Program has a network of over 200 volunteer foster carers who are integral to the development of our future detector dogs.

Pups are fostered out to safe and loving homes from nine weeks of age. Foster carers enjoy the rewarding experience of raising a pup, providing them with social and environmental experiences which grow their confidence and independence in preparation to become working dogs.

Many foster carers who join the Program are repeat carers or foster multiple dogs. Narelle and Meg are currently fostering their sixth pup. 


Detector Dog Program Foster carers – Narelle and Meg Riley with ‘Olson’ and ‘Obama’ 

The Detector Dog Program is always searching for foster carers in Melbourne. There are specific criteria required to become a foster carer. All the details and the application form can be found on the Australian Border Force website at abf.gov.au/detectordogs

Detector Dog Juvenile Development

Teaching Australian Border Force (ABF) dogs the skills required to become a working dog is a process that begins long before the commencement of a formal Detector Dog Training Course. The development program for our juvenile dogs consists of regular assessments by our team of Development Officers, in combination with all the work performed by our foster carer community.

By the age of 12 months, all our dogs will have developed basic detection capabilities that enable them to systematically search for and detect a learned target odour.

There is a focus on environmental conditioning, allowing dogs to train and work assuredly, in a wide range of challenging situations. This foundation training is vital for their future as working dogs.

Only the dogs with the strongest temperament and drive will go on to become ABF Detector Dogs.

Training the Top Detector Dogs

Australian Border Force detector dog training is a highly technical and challenging course. Each detector dog team requires approximately 8 months of formal and on-the-job training before becoming operational resources. It takes more time for these dogs to become fully proficient as they continue to expand their search and detection capabilities.

During the formal detector dog course, which runs for 12 weeks, dogs are trained to detect a range of target odours including drugs, explosives, firearms, currency and tobacco.

The training focuses on developing independent search and decision making abilities. Fully trained dogs have the capacity to work in a wide range of work environments, and the independence to follow their own instincts.

Operational Detector Dogs

Operational detector dogs work in a variety of dynamic and challenging environments. 


They make regular detections in our airports, sea ports and postal gateways. They work collaboratively with domestic law enforcement agencies and the ABF across a range of domestic locations.

Last year ABF detector dog teams achieved over 2400 detections, preventing the illegal importation of thousands of kilograms of illicit substances and prohibited imports.

Some of the detections in 2018 included: 
  • Drugs: More than 310kg in sea freight, resulting in numerous arrests worldwide, 50kg in air freight and 12kg in international mail. 
  • Currency: $800,000 passenger export (aircraft). 
  • Tobacco: Multiple detections between 10kg and 2,500kg across freight, mail and passenger environments. 

National and International Relations

Many of the dogs that are bred and developed through the ABF Detector Dog Program find work with other agencies, both within Australia and abroad.

Some of our local partner agencies include:

  • Australian Federal Police 
  • Department of Agriculture 
  • State and Territory Police and Corrections Services 
  • Australian Defence Force 
In 2018, the ABF Detector Dog Program also supplied dogs to Japan Customs, New Zealand Customs, Singapore Police and Indonesia Customs. Supplying dogs to these countries helps improve international relations, as well as increasing border security and crime prevention throughout the region.

Health and Wellbeing


The Detector Dog Program maintains the health and wellbeing of each pup throughout their entire journey within the Program. The veterinary staff onsite provide medical attention to all dogs at the facility and care for pups out in foster carer homes. 

Each year the Detector Dog Program places pups with foster carers in the Melbourne area. Foster carers are responsible for maintaining the pup’s health and wellbeing, including daily feeding and exercise and conducting regular health checks to identify any arising health problems. Any health issues and associated costs are covered by the Detector Dog Program. 


Vet Team

The National Detector
 Dog Program Facility employs qualified veterinarians and nurses to work onsite.


The veterinary team perform an extensive range of functions including consultations, vaccinations, surgery and anaesthesia procedures. They perform many exams and procedures, which include x-rays, de-sexings, eye procedures, wound repair and caesarean births. 

The veterinary team oversee the general health and well-being of the entire ABF canine colony and provide support and guidance to the staff within the Detector Dog Program and to foster carers raising ABF pups in their homes.

Animal Attendant Team 

The animal attendant team plays an important role in ensuring the dog population on site at the National Detector Dog Program Facility are well looked after. A Kennel Manager who is responsible for overseeing the daily activities of the kennel complex, and upskilling new and existing team members in animal welfare practices, leads this team. 

This team consists of full time and casual staff members who cover day and afternoon shifts, 365 days of the year. Their duties include cleaning, feeding, administering medication and exercising dogs.

A significant part of each shift is spent tending to the needs and welfare of each dog at the facility from not only an animal husbandry perspective but also providing enrichment and socialisation to the dogs.

Animal attendants are based around the country to support regional ABF detector dog units.

The National Detector Dog Program Team

The National Detector Dog Program operates from a state of the art purpose built facility located in Melbourne, Victoria. 
This facility incorporates the Program’s Management team and the Capability and Resource Management team. It is also home to the operational Victorian Detector Dog Unit and the breeding, development and training cells of the Program.

The DDP has operational Detector Dog Units in the major ports and some small ports around Australia. As a deployable, flexible workforce the Program is able to respond to tasking requests to all points of the country at short notice.

The DDP employs 85 full-time ABF staff and approximately 25 contractors, all contributing to ensure the best product is working on the frontline to protect Australia’s borders. 

written for Australian Dog Lover, December 2018 (all rights reserved)

For more details, visit www.abf.gov.au/detectordogs or call 1800 664 106 (Monday to Friday: 7.30am–4.30pm)
For enquiries, please email: foster_carers@abf.gov.au


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