The dog squad (Photo: Dave Abbott - Liquid Action Films)

Meet the DOC dogs protecting New Zealand’s native wildlife

Since 2016, the Department of Conservation (DOC) has partnered with Kiwibank to develop the conservation dog programme and, by proxy, raise the profile of conservation as a whole. Don Rowe goes to visit these hard-working canines to find out what it takes to be a DOC dog. 

The egg of a common skink is about the size of a grain of jasmine rice. Given a microscope and an afternoon, you’d be hard pressed to find one on the average front lawn. But with the use of only her nose, Harper the Labrador-Collie cross could dig that same egg out of a fallen tree in an old-growth forest – just as soon as she decided on the exact species of skink it belonged to.

That feat, like much of what the Department of Conservation’s conservation dogs can do, is the centrepiece of a marketing campaign with the modest goal of saving the country.

Some very good dogs helping to conserve the environment (Photo: Dave Abbott – Liquid Action Films)

“Sustainability is no longer enough,” says Geoff Ensor, director of commercial partnerships at DOC. “Our belief is that historically, sustainability has not worked well, and that’s why we’re facing the biodiversity crisis that is in front of us. We must make sure the urgency of this is conveyed.”

Successful restoration, however, requires a Herculean effort, one which sees private enterprise make conservation a priority – as DOC believes is its civic duty. Only with strong action from local business can an appropriate response be conducted.

Since 2016, the department has partnered with Kiwibank to develop the conservation dog programme and, by proxy, raise the profile of conservation as a whole. “Our vision is one of every business contributing to restoring nature by 2050,” Ensor says. “We want the likes of Kiwibank to show real leadership both in doing that, but also in telling the story of the why, and being quite proud and bold about that.”

DOC dogs on the job (Photo: Dave Abbott – Liquid Action Films)

In the late 1800s, pioneering conservationist and nativist, Richard Henry, began using dogs to locate threatened species for translocation to pest-free islands in Fiordland – the first effort of its kind in the world. Today, the conservation dog programme comprises of more than 80 dogs across New Zealand.

In Northland, athletic hounds like the German Pointer and Hungarian Vizsla track critically endangered kiwi in their hidden burrows, helping to monitor the health of our most iconic bird. On islands in the Hauraki Gulf, crack squads of terriers chase down rats, mice and mustelids; ‘rat dogs’ in the most complimentary sense. And so on across the country, from Fiordland to Whangarei.

Harper, who I meet atop Takuranga on Auckland’s North Shore, lives full time with her handler Hannah Johnston and Indie the terrier. Johnston joined DOC in October of last year after a stint at MPI; one of four hires made possible by the partnership with Kiwibank.

DOC dogs at work (Photo: Dave Abbott – Liquid Action Films)

Conservation dogs and their handlers endure up to 18 months of intensive daily training before receiving certification. While positive reinforcement is a staple of Johnston’s training methods, the rewards are tailored to the quirks of the dogs in her care. “Harper is rewarded with food and treats,” she says. “So it’s very convenient she’s half a labrador. As a rat dog, Indie gets rewarded with play, whether that’s tug-of-war with a piece of rope, or just wrestling around with a dead rat.”

Johnston says branding is crucial in both pushing the profile of the dogs, and changing the perception of the species they hunt. “The lizards used to be called Rainbow Skinks, but there was a campaign to get that name changed. How could you hate a rainbow skink? Plague skinks are a lot easier to want to eradicate.”

When the dogs aren’t in their kennels atop the maunga, they rotate between fieldwork, upskilling and participating in a new DOC campaign for visibility and public awareness. Through their partnership with Kiwibank, DOC’s Social Science Team initiated a study hoping to understand the impact of visible conservation dogs on people’s behaviour, programme manager Sally Thomas explains. “We’re trying to figure out whether a conservation dog’s presence at a wharf or a marina is likely to influence people’s awareness and or behaviour around their own biosecurity practices,” she says. “Our early findings are that they do.”

DOC dogs on the job (Photo: Dave Abbott – Liquid Action Films)

The conservation dogs message is a gateway to conservation as a whole. In September, the dogs will be at the annual Boat Show to promote biosecurity, something Johnston says is a crucial method for getting people through the door. “The dogs are a great technique for getting people interested,” says Johnston. “Who doesn’t love dogs? People are interested, they ask questions, and it’s a great way to push that message.”

It’s an old adage that what is out of sight is out of mind – but thanks to savvy marketing campaigns and catchphrases like Predator Free 2050, conservation has never enjoyed a higher profile. Prominent broadcasters like Jesse Mulligan have recently used their platforms to plead for action on a national scale, and for the first time in a decade, the Green Party is at the negotiating table when it comes to central government policy.

Geoff Ensor says there hasn’t been a better opportunity for cross-disciplinary action on conservation, whatever form that takes. “This isn’t even all about supporting DOC. Our strategy is about galvanising an all of New Zealand response to our challenges,” he says. “There’s half a million businesses in New Zealand that employ about two million people, and there’s a massive response possible through that.”

Squad goals (Photo: Dave Abbott – Liquid Action Films)

On a local level, Ensor says businesses are keen to contribute – so long as those contributions are measurable and worthwhile. That decision isn’t just about good optics or greenwashing.

This country is rife with species, habitats, flora and fauna on the brink of disappearing forever. Around 80% of native birds in New Zealand are at risk, our waterways are the stuff of Cormac McCarthy novels, there’s greater pressure than ever on our Great Walks, and the subject of a tourist tax is a political hot potato. Our economic future and continued national identity depend on an appropriately forceful response.

“New Zealand has leveraged off its environment serendipitously and without understanding its true value in an international or a local sense,” says Ensor. “It’s not okay where we’re at, and every business has a responsibility to help bring nature back.”


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