Dogs help conservation – really!?

For many people, particularly in my neck of the woods, hearing the words dog and conservation in the same sentence will translate to how dogs are destroying the wildlife, disrupting ground nesting birds or small mammals, and generally causing havoc around the countryside. Following this, it was quite novel and to be honest rather intriguing to read that conservation dogs are being used to aid conservation monitoring.

The use of conservation dogs is gaining recognition around the world for efficacy, accuracy, and versatility in the location of biological targets. Successful records have been gathered for locating faeces, hair, urine, animals and rare plants, and I thought it was something that just had to be shared amongst the blogging community. There are a few very strong reasons for why a man’s best friend is helping save our endangered species, and Cristescu et al., (2015) has given us a particularly good example of this.

In all survey methods used to identify biological specimens, we try to mitigate the issues caused by false negative distribution data, recording an absence of a species when it actually lives there. False negatives can cause huge errors in the interpretation of habitat preference, home ranges, and the danger a species faces to extinction. To minimise the risk of gathering false negative data, researchers will often repeat searches, particularly with cryptic species. Although necessary, this is very time-consuming, and can lead to a significant amount of destruction and disruption of foliage and habitat. This problem is also confounded by the fact that dense foliage is not only more affected by human disturbance, but may also require more visitations to detect a species with reduced visibility.

In contrast to human survey methods, the availability of scent needed by detection dogs is not affected by the density of foliage, and the nature of canine movement also means that they inflict a minimum damage to dense and delicate flora in a given area. This means that detection dogs can provide a double advantage, increasing the rate of detection without a bias towards detection in areas with a low foliage density.

Some people may take a back pedal here, wondering whether the dogs could be doing more harm than good if seen as dangerous predators by wildlife. There is a vast amount of research to demonstrate the negative effects of dogs already on a wide range of species. In the cases I have read, however, that does not seem to be true. On a study carrying out research to hunt for Koala faeces, Phascolarctos cineus, to determine the population size, the dogs were found to be 19 times more efficient than humans, with a detection rate increase of 100%, 153% more accurate than a human only team.

Fig 1: difference between dog team and human-only team to find koala scats in minutes (Cristescu et al., 2015)

For species like the koala, researchers rely on indirect methods like those collecting faecal pellets or scats for the majority of their work. In these surveys, a failure to detect species presence is a serious problem and can have huge negative implications on koala conservation.

Fig. 2: difference in time between dog teams and human only teams to determine an absence of koala scats (Cristescu et al., 2015)

In this study, conservation dogs managed to detect koala scats in eight locations where human-only survey methods had previously not. In contrast, the human-only survey methods were never able to find koala scats where the dogs hadn’t. The dog team were signficantly more efficient than humans at finding koala scats (fig. 1), and were also 19 times faster at finding scats. Where scats were not present the detection dogs were still more efficient at determining an absence (fig. 2).

Although researchers have to be careful not to use these dogs inappropriately, where they may disturb the wildlife to a greater extent than they could provide a benefit through dog surveys. Neveretheless, it seems that the efficiency, accuracy and sheer extent of data that can be collected speaks for itself in terms of the benefits provided by conservation dogs in research.

So there we have it, a novel way to guide and monitor conservation efforts using man’s best friend. This is not to say I am going to try and use my Jack Russel’s wildlife detection abilities anytime soon in my university research, but it certainly underlines a purpose for the slightly better-trained dogs in the world of conservation.

feature image: Ray Morris via Flikr

If you’re interested and would like to read more about conservation dogs, please take a read of this research article, or follow @ConservationDog on twitter


Cristescu, R.H., Foley, E., Markula, A., Jackson, G., Jones, D. and Frère, C., (2015) Accuracy and efficiency of detection dogs: a powerful new tool for koala conservation and management. Scientific reports, 5, p.8349.


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