Wildlife’s new best friend

11 November 2020

Zoos Victoria’s latest recruit, Moss the ‘unicorn dog’ is learning life-saving lessons to help protect endangered species.

Like most 18-month-old Labradors, Moss is a hurricane of energy.

Unlike most, however, he will use that energy to help save some of Victoria’s most critically endangered species. Moss is the first recruit to Healesville Sanctuary’s Detection Dog squad. This squad, which will eventually include five fully trained dogs, will be deployed across Victoria to help sniff out highly elusive animals, helping Zoos Victoria and its conservation partners monitor crucial populations in the fight against extinction.

“It took a long time to find Moss, the perfect first recruit to our Detection Dog squad,” explains Naomi Hodgens, Wildlife Detection Dog Officer and one of Moss’ trainers.

"“Detection dogs need to have a very special and rare personality, which is why we call them ‘unicorn dogs’. They have to have a lot of energy, be very motivated to work with people and want to solve puzzles. At the same time, they can’t be at all interested in other animals. He needs to stay focused on us even with distractions.”

It took months of searching to find Moss, and more than a dozen in-person visits to different rescue dogs looking for a forever home. Moss was living with a foster family on a farm, as his tireless energy made him unsuitable to be a family pet.

“When we saw him on the farm, totally ignoring free-range chickens, that was a really good sign,” says Naomi. “Right away he was more interested in looking at us. He loves to engage with people, so we make all his training a big game. Now he has a job and new challenges every day, he’s absolutely thriving.”

Moss is still in training, but soon he’ll be working towards detecting endangered species such as the Baw Baw Frog and the Plains-wanderer – both critically endangered, and extremely difficult to find in the wild. The tiny Baw Baw Frogs burrow underground, sometimes as deep as one metre into the mud. Until now, the only reliable way to find them was by listening for the mating calls of the males, which can take four years to mature (sometimes longer).

Using dogs means scientists can locate female and juvenile frogs and frogs recently reintroduced to the wild, says Threatened Species Biologist Deon Gilbert.

“We need to be able to tell if captive frogs released into the wild are surviving in their new homes.”

It’s not just searching through alpine regions where detection dogs shine.

“Plains-wanderers, small grass-dwelling birds, are extremely well camouflaged, and during the day they blend in seamlessly with their grassland habitat,” says Chris Hartnett, Threatened Species Project Officer.

Many animals use smells to communicate with each other, but our poor human noses leave us unable to detect, let alone decode, this hidden language. Dogs have noses up to 10,000 times more powerful than humans and are happy to share their findings. Detecting hormone traces in the faeces of female Tasmanian Devils is a non-invasive way for scientists to know when the females are in oestrus – and it’s a scent that dogs can easily pick up.

Where male Tasmanian Devils can already pick up on the subtle cues a female is sending them – such as pheromones, an extra roll of fat around the female’s neck or quieter behaviours – the detection dogs allow scientists to more accurately ascertain the reproductive status of a female.

“Detection dogs need to have a very special and rare personality, which is why we call them ‘unicorn dogs’."

“Researchers instead have to rely on spotlighting at night, which is an effective but time-consuming method. Detection Dogs offer a complementary and highly flexible addition to the conservation toolbox.”

Detection Dogs can also be deployed after natural disasters – such as major bushfires – to swiftly assess the level of harm to native species and identify potentially crucial remnant populations for protection.

The common theme through all these projects is the ability of dogs to sense the information-dense natural scents in the world around them and translate for their people.

Dr Marissa Parrott, a Reproductive Biologist at Zoos Victoria, is working with the Detection Dog squad on world-first research to train the dogs to detect the presence of these hormone traces in endangered Tasmanian Devil scat.

“The dogs should theoretically be able to alert us to whether a female devil is receptive to mating, is pregnant or is even lactating for joeys in her pouch. That way we can stay as hands‑off as possible at these crucial times when devils are settling in to becoming new mums,” says Marissa.

This information will help the Sanctuary manage breeding programs for the greatest success – both to improve breeding success, and for the devils’ welfare.

Moss and his future comrades have an eclectic list of potential jobs. Working across grasslands and mountains, in the wake of disaster or in sensitive research, these dogs are the Swiss Army knives of conservation.

The secret is none of these jobs feel like work for Moss. He tackles each day with the joy of a young pup whose life is filled with endless games and treats with his favourite people. Right now, he’s learning vital foundational skills, like perfect recall and a rock-solid safety stop, entirely through positive reinforcement and rewards. He’s also learning a more complicated game: finding scents. Moss has been trained to use a passive alert, never interacting directly with the target – whether that’s a tiny frog or a scat sample.

Moss’ handlers are still building his foundation skills and learning which environments he thrives in. What is certain is that Moss will always be showered in care, whether he’s working in the field in a race against extinction, or wriggling on his back in the grass, happy to be taking a well-deserved snooze.