By Rebecca Ross, Executive Director of Dogs for Conservation
Recently, one of our trainers headed back to the Galapagos Islands to check in on our newly established conservation dog detection teams. In December 2014, Dogs for Conservation brought two dogs and a team of trainers to build local capacity to address the invasive Giant African Land Snail (GALS) problem on Santa Cruz (thanks to a generous grant from Galapagos Conservancy). The goal was to train staff from the Galapagos Biosecurity Agency (ABG), already working to combat invasive species, to handle specially-trained detection dogs that could assist in locating and eradicating the GALS.
Dogs for Conservation sent four trainers for one month of intensive daily training sessions with the new dog handlers and to acclimate the dogs, Darwin and Neville, to their new home in the Islands. Handling working dogs is not intuitive and does not come naturally for most people. Our new local team has been keen and motivated from the beginning, but a lot of training was needed to get them ready to become full-time canine handlers.
In December 2014, we covered basic canine behavior, body language, leash handling, clicker training, daily care, proper nutrition, and many other aspects related to training and handling detection dogs. This was information overload, and although our December trip went very well, we certainly did not expect an overnight success story — we knew it would take time and experience to turn our new team members into highly capable dog handlers.
Since December, we have received regular updates from the Galapagos team members via email and video sharing, and have assisted remotely with questions or concerns that have arisen. We recently sent Texas-based trainer Tiffanie Turner back to Galapagos to check on the progress of both the dogs and their human counterparts. We fully expected there would be plenty for Tiffanie to do upon her arrival!
Tiffanie reported that Darwin and Neville have acclimated well to their new home and to their handlers. As with any big move there were some unexpected bumps in the road, such as one of the dogs having a chronic allergy to a plant found in Galapagos. Fortunately, the dogs are in the great care of the veterinarians at the ABG and their health is monitored very closely at all times.
Both the dogs and their humans needed some “tune-ups” in the training department, which is Tiffanie’s forte. She put them through their paces with lots of training scenarios and real-world field trips to help refresh their memories and keep them motivated. The key to our training philosophy (both dogs and humans!) is to reward, reward, reward — so the dogs got their toys every time they did the correct behavior (find a snail), and the humans were rewarded with lots of verbal praise and the occasional piece of candy!
There are many other potential uses for detection dogs to assist conservation efforts in Galapagos. Our hope is that, with continued support from Dogs for Conservation and Galapagos Conservancy, our newly formed canine teams can continue their work on GALS eradication as well as be prepared for new projects that may come along that require the support of these special dogs and their human teammates.
Rebecca Ross is the Executive Director of the nonprofit Dogs for Conservation and works full time as a Wildlife Ecologist and Detection Dog Trainer and Handler.
All photos © Dogs for Conservation.