Canines for Wildlife in Brierfield

Tucked away on a hundred forested acres just south of Bellingen is a family growing a business based on detection dogs.

Drugs and biosecurity dogs have been around for some time, but using dogs to locate rare and endangered wildlife is a more recent development.

One of the best-known proponents in Australia is Steve Austin, who trained the canines and handlers responsible for making Macquarie Island feral-animal free.

In 2015, Australia Post released a series of stamps to honour the dogs that worked on the huge project to eradicate feral animals from Macquarie Island.

In 2015, Australia Post released a series of stamps to honour the dogs that worked on the huge project to eradicate feral animals from Macquarie Island.

Steve also trained up three members of a family living at Brierfield.

Now running a business called Canines for Wildlife, Lynn Baker, Brad Nesbitt and their 22-year-old son Jack converged on this line of work from different directions.

Lynn started handling conservation detection dogs six years ago, while working with the NSW Office of Environment & Heritage.

Brad, formerly with the National Parks & Wildlife Service, did a course with Steve in 2014 and Jack has a TAFE qualification in dog training and behaviour.

Headquarters in Brierfield includes four dogs - three working line English Springer Spaniels and one Border Collie - and a designated 'odour fridge', which stores carefully bagged palettes of aromas from koalas, antechinus, turtles and feral cats.

Each dog is trained on multiple odours and their reward for locating the target, which may be scats (poo), a nest or the animal itself, is an exciting play session.

Jack said the main attribute a detection dog needs is an exuberant and obsessive nature - the sort of qualities that make for a very annoying pet.

That drive for the squeaky toy or the tennis ball is beyond anything else in their life.

Jack Nesbitt

"Basically it's all about drive. That drive for the squeaky toy or the tennis ball is beyond anything else in their life. The game for the dog is, 'if you do this, you play with this'. And we intentionally keep their life day to day relatively mundane. So when they're out working or training, it is the best experience they ever have."

Training starts from around six months of age, and as well as learning key words to signal what they are supposed to find on a particular day, and the range of scents that can indicate that animal, they also need to be well-behaved, responding to whistle and voice commands while working in the bush.

"They need to ignore other wildlife," Brad said. "That's why we have flocks of guinea fowl around here. We train them among these flocks not to have a flush response. So when a native animal flushes from the grass, they don't chase it."

The whole 100-acre property, with its cattle, horses, wallabies, possums, bandicoots and birds, is used for this purpose. "In their initial sensitive periods we introduce them to these animals and implement training that is about bringing their focus back to us, and we've got food or a toy," Jack said. "They learn all the fun happens with us."

The introductions take place while the pups are on a lead, Lynn points out. "It's a progressive thing. You make sure they don't fail."

Canines for Wildlife is working on an antechinus project with researchers from universities in Queensland who are systematically surveying mountainous forest for two marsupials threatened with extinction, the black-tailed dusky antechinus, Antechinus arktos, and silver-headed antechinus,Antechinus argentus.

In May, Jack and Ash impressed the crowd with a demonstration of finding koala scat for the Jaliigirr Biodiversity Alliance and World Wildlife Fund field day.

The team is also helping to protect the rare Bell's Turtle, found only on the Namoi, Gwydir and Border Rivers systems. The dogs are trained to detect turtle nests, so that the eggs can be protected from foxes by putting cages around them or by collecting the eggs for incubation and releasing the hatchlings later.

On a property west of Walcha in February, Max sniffed out a handful of baby turtles that were stuck in their underground nest. "They were trapped low in the nest chamber by a harder clay layer, all the other turtles had managed to escape and just these few remained," Brad said.

With Southern Cross University, they're investigating the impacts of feral cats in rainforests, by finding scats that the researchers can analyse to see what the cats have been eating.

A plan for the future is training a dog to detect 'European foulbrood', a disease afflicting commercial bee hives.

"There could be 250 hives to check and it would take a person an hour to do each one," Jack said. "A dog can walk past and use his nose to go - no, no, yes."

Dogs 'see' the world through their noses, and the Canines for Wildlife team are using this ability to help protect Australian wildlife.