Training scientific dogs to sniff out pests

By Josephine Sargent October 6, 2011
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Dog trainer Steve Austin has a team of keen canines fighting for the preservation of our native wildlife.

“I LIKE MY DOGS like I like my women,” Steve Austin says, with a gleam in his blue eyes. “They have to have attitude. They have to be outgoing and feisty.”

This tall, white-haired man, with a laugh that comes from deep in his belly, has spent a lifetime training dogs and is now at the helm of a conservation project to use them to eradicate rabbits from Macquarie Island.

Earlier this year, a team of 12 dogs headed to the isolated outpost, 1500km from Hobart, where it will spend five years sniffing out rabbits and their dens. The handlers and the dogs will spend one to two weeks out in the field, mapping the pests’ locations, before reporting back to base and passing on the information to a team of hunters.

“The dogs have to get that last female,” Steve says. “It’s a big ask and a big responsibility. If you don’t get it, you’re back to square one again. It’s history making.” He reckons the biggest challenge will be keeping the dogs motivated, once rabbit numbers dwindle. “When there are no rabbits left and the dogs still have to hunt – they are not going to be rewarded with a find,” he explains. But he’s looking forward to the challenge.

Steve’s love of man’s best friend began when, aged 12, he was given his first pup, Sooty. With that dog by his side, Steve would tramp up to the Rockdale pub, in Sydney’s south, where the dog would balance a schooner of beer on his head and delighted patrons would toss money at them. “They were all two-shilling pieces,” Steve says, rolling out that deep belly laugh. “I made a killing.” This friendship led to a lifelong passion for working with dogs, and Steve soon began training them in specialised ways.

Training dogs to help wildlife

Four years ago, he and his wife Vicki – also a dog trainer – bought a boarding and training business, Pet Resorts Australia, which is based in Dural, NSW. Steve has trained dogs to detect narcotics for drug busts in California, to track cheetahs in Namibia, to sniff out the first cultivated truffles in Tasmania in 1999, and he’s also passed on his knowledge to other keen dog trainers in Japan and the UK.



But, he says, it was his decade-long work with the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service that he found most fulfilling. “When the dogs would find food or a plant that had a bug on it – which could’ve caused chaos – that’s rewarding,” he says. “It’s knowing that in a small but significant way it’s helped our wildlife.” Recent projects have included helping wildlife officers hunt down cane toads, foxes and feral cats in Australia’s national parks and protecting the penguin colony at Sydney’s North Head.

Pecking chooks and their cheeping offspring flit among the dogs being trained at Pet Resorts Australia. “These chickens stood in for penguins when I was training the dogs, since I couldn’t get the real deal,” says Steve, as the feathered flock scurries out of our path.

The dogs are a variety of breeds, from small, floppy-eared spaniels to lumbering Labradors, with lolling pink tongues. Most are rescued from the pound and are rarely purebred. “We buy working dogs, not show dogs,” Steve says. “The show dogs might look pretty, but they’re not suitable.”

Whether following its nose to a drug bust, or picking up the trail of a rabbit, each dog takes about 13 weeks to train. “The dogs have the best time,” Steve says. “All their energy that would usually go into tearing clothes off the line, digging holes and terrorising the kids all get put into something useful.”

Patience and consistency the key to dog training

The key to training any dog is patience and consistency, he says. “You need to give the dogs structure. They love rules and boundaries. A lot of people don’t realise that. Dogs need a leader and boundaries and a purpose – even if it’s just going for a walk at the same time each day with the boss.”

But, just like training children, the key is picking the right treat to reward them. “Some dogs like toys; others like food,” Steve says. “Dogs learn: ‘For you to get this reward, you have to do this behaviour.’ Never give the reward at any other time and it becomes sacred. There are no free lunches. So, a work ethic [slowly] develops in the dog.”

The future involves broadening the use of canines in the battle to protect native wildlife. “I want people to understand that dogs can be used in conservation really well,” Steve says. “People think dogs go out and kill things. …A properly trained dog is not going to kill but [instead] detect or indicate and leave the animals alone. Conservation is important to me. It’s getting to decision time. Do Australian people want feral or native animals? They can’t coexist.”

One thing is perfectly clear – it isn’t a dog’s life for Steve Austin. “I wake up every morning and I do what I’d do if I had $30 million. I’m a lucky man.”

Source: Australian Geographic (Issue 103, July-August, 2011)