Complete with uniforms, rosters and wages, some dogs have jobs – and that’s exactly how they like it.
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Albie arrives at work with a sense of purpose, a spring in his step and his uniform – a bright orange life jacket – pulled tight. Up to four times a week, the English springer spaniel gets dropped off at Akaroa Wharf in the morning. There, he heads down the jetty, jumps on a boat and reports to his captain for duty. It’s time for Albie to get to work.
He’s employed as a dolphin-spotting dog for Akaroa Dolphins, and Albie takes his tasks seriously. For two-hour cruises, running three times a day, Albie sits at the front of the boat and listens for dolphins’ high-pitched frequencies. When he hears them, he “gets really excited”, says head skipper George Waghorn. Those dolphins can be elusive, so Albie helps point paying cruise customers in the right direction.
Customers take the cruise to see Hector’s dolphins in their natural habitat around Akaroa Bay, but Albie is part of the experience. Complimentary beer or wine, plus freshly baked cookies, helps pass the time if dolphins are feeling shy. But it’s usually Albie who comes to the rescue. “He keeps people happy [with] cuddles,” says Waghorn, who believes “quite a few” customers are there just to see Albie in action.
When Albie’s tired, he swaps shifts with Buster, a miniature schnauzer known for occasionally running too fast across the boat’s deck and sliding into the water. All those swells can be tiring, so if they’re both knackered, captain Waghorn calls on Jet. At 10, he’s retired, but is happy to step into the fray to lend a helping paw. Jet used to work in the Australian outback. “Once a working dog, always a working dog,” says his website bio.
In return for their service, all three dogs get paid in regular doggie treats handed out on the boat, and their owners receive a box of wine at Christmas each year.
Albie, Buster and Jet are just some of the many big boss dogs that have jobs around Aotearoa. Some are trained to work, need to work and love doing it. Others provide an essential service. Dogs are easily trained, versatile, adaptable, and ready to help. Some sniff out cancers, or find bombs in war zones. Others stop drugs or fruit from entering the country at airports, or work with police handlers to catch criminals. They can search for missing people, dig for rare truffles, drive cars and planes, guide the blind, show and perform, pull carts, guard things and heal hurt hearts.
When they retire, many of them miss it, like this explosives-sniffing dog whose story went viral recently. It’s an impressive range that proves we don’t know the limits of what dogs can do, says Mark Vette. “Canine cognition is a relatively new science,” says the dog trainer and behavioural expert. “It’s allowing us to really understand what capabilities they do have. What we’re finding is there are many similarities in the way [dogs and humans] think. There are more similarities than differences by a long way.”
If anyone should know just how valuable dogs are, it’s Vette. He’s trained animals to do ultra-specific things on movie sets, like The Last Samurai and Lord of the Rings. But Vette’s most famous trick is teaching a dog to drive a car in 2012. For that stunt, he noticed something he hadn’t seen before: his driving dogs began anticipating corners. “You see them start to make decisions that you didn’t think they’d be able to make,” he says. Ten years on, Vette’s delighted to see dogs become so integrated in everyday lives. “It’s a wonderful thing. It really shows they have a very similar social structure to us.”
So why do dogs want to work? It’s all about chemistry, the hormone oxytocin to be exact. “That’s the hormone that ties us together and bonds us,” says Vette. “They have very similar levels towards humans as us towards them.” As a result, dogs live to please. “They love to have a purpose … they’re very much a pack animal. They work for the good of the pack.”
Out at Auckland Airport, they know this all too well. At a custom-built facility, dozens of detector dogs are looked after by a full-time staff of three kennel operators. “The facilities are top drawer,” says Mike Inglis, MPI Auckland’s northern regional commissioner. “They’re designed to give our biosecurity dogs a high level of care, so they’re fit, they’re healthy … and making sure when they go to work they do the best job they can.”
They’re not drug-sniffing dogs. Those belong to New Zealand Customs and are employed for the search of illicit goods and cash coming through our borders. Biosecurity dogs search for food, seeds, fruit and vegetables that could bring unwanted pests and disease into the country. “We don’t want African swine fever coming trough on any pork products,” says Inglis, as an example. They do this at several locations, including the airport, the mail centre and the port.
Success relies on several things, says Inglis. Their breeding programme is world renowned, with an 80% success rate. Their relationship with their handlers is also crucial, and puppies are rarely swapped around. Then there’s rest. They work for half an hour at a time, then head back to their Māngere kennel for dinner and recuperation. “Like ourselves, after a busy day, they need to sleep,” says Inglis, who couldn’t be happier with the work the dogs do. “They do New Zealand proud.”
Perhaps the dog with the most important job is Yazz. For the past year, the black lab has been guiding Sue around the Kāpiti Coast, taking her out for shopping, meetings and coffees. Sue suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, meaning her eyesight is limited to just a pinprick in one eye. Yazz’s task is keeping her safe, and helping her live as normal life as possible. “I live on my own so Yazz is more than a dog with a job,” she says. “When his harness goes on, he switches into extra-careful mode. He’s always watching me. ‘What are you doing Mum? Are you OK? What’s happening?'”
It’s a job Yazz takes seriously, and personally. “He’s an absolute perfectionist,” Sue says. “He likes to get it right.” She had to reassure Yazz recently while they were out walking and her hand knocked into a rubbish bin. Yazz blamed himself for it. “You have to reassure him, ‘Look, I’m fine, I’m not hurt.” During our conversation, Yazz rested on Sue’s feet. His ears sometimes pricked up, and he’d lift his head, like he knew we were talking about him.
It’s a collaborative relationship. Yazz makes sure Sue can get around town, and doesn’t fall down steps or trip on gutters. In return, Sue makes sure he’s fed, loved, and rested. “He needs that,” she says. “If you’re going out for a whole day, he has to go to the toilet, he needs a drink, he has needs too, you have to meet those. Sometimes, he’s just mentally tired, and needs to chill out.””
So who’s the real boss? Sue agrees it’s sometimes hard to tell. “At times him, at times me,” she says. But one thing she’s sure about. Yazz loves to work, he lives to work. “When he gets his harness on, he’s completely on. If he didn’t like to work, it would be a bit of a struggle. I just grab the harness and he comes running.”