Most of us associate 'working dogs' with a farm, as guide dogs for blind or partially sighted people, or as police dogs. But dogs are used in far more wide ranging roles than these, particularly in detection roles.
It’s a mid-winter morning, still dank with fog as Zara waits patiently for handler Janet and the supervisor at the factory to finish talking. Finally Janet comes over, slips on Zara’s harness and they’re into the factory to see what they can find.
Zara’s been trained to find drugs in the workplace, since the factory owner suspects some of his workers are using them on the job. Zara will be able to sort through the huge range of smells available to her and identify a range of drugs. It’s also happening during normal working hours so everyone can see this is an impartial search.
Initially she and Janet search the locker area where workers store their belongings and, while Zara identifies some drug smells it’s clear there are no drugs there today. So she progresses to the warehouse and soon sits beside a large spool, looking expectantly at Janet for a treat. Sure enough, a small quantity of marijuana is found within the central spindle itself. Further searches produce two more finds, all of which are confiscated.
She and Janet will be back in a couple of months to repeat the process. “I wish workers would learn they can’t fool a dog’s nose,” sighs the owner.
Dogs have between 250 and 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, compared to about six million in ours, so a dog’s nose is more than 40 times more sensitive. While some dogs have been bred to enhance specific traits any dog can use their nose unless, like bulldogs or boxers, it has a genetic trait that inhibits it from doing this as successfully as other breeds.
The odour a dog is trained to detect makes no difference to the type of training it receives, be it search and rescue work, drug detection or anything else. “The difference is the environment the dogs have to work in, and how easy it is to detect the odour in the environment they’re required to screen,” says Janet Williams of NZ Detector Dogs, the only private company in NZ doing this role with professional dog handlers. “A dog checking boxes or suitcases at the airport has a much easier environment in which to find their target odour than perhaps a dog seeking drugs on a fishing vessel where hiding places, opposing and distracting odours, and access to and availability of the target odour can be very difficult.”
Nine years ago Zara was a severely malnourished older pup found wandering the streets of Auckland, who had been handed in to the SPCA. Janet remembers her as being just skin and bone, covered in sores and wounds. She’d already had a litter.
“I walked past the cage she was in and slipped her a biscuit,” Janet says. “For the next 30 minutes as we looked at the other rehome dogs, Zara didn't leave the front of the cage and her eyes never left us for a second. Eventually we took her out to assess her abilities and despite never having a scrap of training, she was willing to do anything we asked.”
Zara was adopted by the company, put into training as a working drug dog, and has never looked back. "I am a keen supporter of the SPCA, and wherever possible our company policy is to source and train rescue dogs," explains Janet.
NZ Detector Dogs is fortunate to have a company of experienced, professional dog handlers. "Most of us were trainers from large government dog programmes such as the New Zealand Police and the Ministry of Primary Industries," Janet adds.
The company has four full-time handlers and one part-time, covering all of New Zealand. This allows them to adopt dogs that other agencies and dog owners could never consider. The company's aim is to take an individual dog and bring out the best in the animal. "Once you go in with this attitude and training though process, the handlers/trainers are 100% invested in in the wellbeing and development of the dog. So far, every dog has exceeded expectations and they're every bit as good as the purpose-bred dogs, if not better," Janet says.
Dogs are worked for no longer than 30-50 minutes at a time, depending on the size of the site to be checked and the working conditions - for example, the ambient temperature or number of items to be searched. As a general rule, the amount of time a dog is worked in one session means an equal amount of time to rest, ensuring the dog is always working to their peak detection capability.
Giving unwanted dogs a chance
NZ Detector Dogs' policy is to source their drug dogs from the SPCA, pounds or animal welfare agencies in an effort to give unwanted dogs a chance for a productive and happy future. While it may take a lot more expertise and patience to train such dogs, the company has the experience, knowledge, skills, and facilities to undertake this.
Four of their dogs have come from SPCAs in the North Island, while the remaining five have been rescued from other rehoming organisations. "Because we take 'red light' dogs it usually means they have issues that don't usually come with being calm and trusting," Janet explains. Instead of correcting bad or unwanted behaviour, we give the dog alternative choices, and direct and focus their drive into what we want them to do. Once we have them doing that, a lot of the unwanted behaviour naturally diminishes. The dogs also then look to their handlers for more direction, which results in a dog that is focused on working for their handler."
NZ Detector Dogs doesn't select the dogs by breed, but by their level of drive for certain items - usually food. They use this drive to motivate the dogs to overcome issues and work for one of their primary needs - which also helps them overcome a lot of the issues they may face. Once they achieve the desired result, food is used to reinforce the required behaviour.
Janet's own background includes 13 years with what is now the Ministry of Primary Industries' detector dog programme, inititally as a handler and ultimately as the senior trainer responsible for the training of all dogs and handlers at airports across New Zealand.
She was trained by an American specialist contracted to help set up the local programme in 1995/6, based on the US 'Beagle Brigade' which had started in 1984. Initially, only about 10-20% of dogs ended up being truly successful working dogs, and Janet's main aim was to increase that success rate. "By the time I left, we'd raised the rate to about 60-80%," she says. "I started a breeding enhancement project and travelled to the UK to source better and more suitable lines, and I understand this has continued to improve the success rate."
Currently, over 50 dog teams work across all major airports as well as Auckland's International Mall Centre, International cargo companies and even cruise ships arriving from overseas. The dogs are trained to find plants and plant products, as well as animals and animal products. Internationally, beagles have become the most common breed of detector dog, although MPI has found labradors are also very good at such work. "At NZ Detector Dogs, we aim to show the wider public and other agencies just what can be achieved with rescue dogs, and give those dogs that would otherwise not be rehomed a meaningful and valuable future," Janet says proudly. "It is our way of giving back to the animals that gave us our careers, and we want to make a difference and change attitudes towards rescue dogs."
Reggies the explosives detector dog
It has been said that dogs like Reggie only come along once in every 60 dogs. Reggie was surrendered to the SPCA by his owner as they weren't in a position to provide him with the stimulation he needed. He was quite shy and reserved initially and it took the team a while to get to know him. But as soon as Reggie got into the daily enrichment routine, he quickly adjusted to life at the SPCA.
Due to his obsession with tennis balls and ability to learn quickly, SPCA staff thought he may be a good candidate for Aviation Security Servicwes (Avsec), the brance of the Civil Aviation Authority responsible for providing security services at New Zealand's six security-designated airports.
Avsec has a prestigious explosive detector dog (EDD) training programme which as officially recognised by the United States' Transportation Security Administration in 2014 - a world-first acknolwedgement. Reggie started formal training with his Avsec handler, Anke Claessen, in early July. Anke is the other half of Reggie's team - the half who drives, picks up after him, holds onto the lead and interprets his changes of behaviour. "Reggie can be a bit of a clown, but the moment there is work to be done, he switches on and is extremely focused," Anke says. "He is a pleasure to work with." The two of them are looking forward to graduating in September and becoming operational at Wellington Airport.
Avsec's ten-week EDD training programme consists of an allocation course, where the teams are assessed for suitability, and a nine-week EDD training course at the Police Dog Training Centre in Upper Hutt. The course is delivered and supervised by two instructors - one from Avsec and from the New Zealand police - who train four teams (consisting of one Avsec handler and one dog per team) to search and find explosives in different environments.
At the end of the course the teams are tested and certified by the New Zealand Police. A passing grade means the team graduates at 'operational'. Avsec EDD national manager, Monique Masoe, says that Avsec has a strong relationship with animal rescue organisations because of their common interest in securing positive outcomes for both the dogs and the communities in which they live. Avsec is proud to be able to provide the dogs with a new chance at life, with caring and capable handlers, in the service of New Zealand.
"As an EDD, the dogs enjoy a great life and do an important job - not just for Avsec, but for the travelling public and airport community," Monique says. The SPCA team are delighted that he has done so well. "Dogs like Reggie have amazing potential and are often too energetic for the average family home. We are delighted that Reggie has excelled in his training at airport security," they say.
More dogs with jobs
Department of Conservation
DoC's Conservation Dogs Programme uses highly trained dogs and their handlers to detect New Zealand's protected species and unwanted pests. www.doc.govt.nz/conservationdogs
The Blind Foundation's Guide Dog centre breeds its own labradors and golden retrievers to become guide dogs for those people who are blind or have low vision. www.blindfoundation.org.nz/guide-dogs/
Police patrol dogs (all german shepherds) are supplied by the police dog programme that is based at the Dog Training Centre near Wellington. The dogs are mainly used to track and search for people, but many of them are also trained for search and rescue work, victim recovery, narcotic detection work, and deployment with the Armed Offender Squad. www.police.govt.nz/about-us/sturcture/teams-units/dog-section
NZ USAR Search Dog Association
USAR (urban search and rescue) search dogs are an incredibly valuable resource in the location of people who are trapped by the collapse of structures as a result of earthquakes, tornados, landslides, and other natural and man-made distasers. www.usardogs.org.nz
Aviation Security Service (Avsec)
Avsec's explosive detector dogs (EDD) sniff for explosives and explosive materials at New Zealand's main airports (Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, and Queenstown), protecting travellers, airline crew, airport workers and New Zealand by ensuring that no dangerous materials are present on aircraft or in airports. www.avsec.govt.nz/travellers/explosive-detector-dogs/