Two border terriers, being trained by New Zealand’s conservation agency, the Department of Conservation, to sniff out secretive New Zealand geckos and skinks, are raring to go.
“There’s a whole raft of lizards in New Zealand that we aren’t very good at finding,” explains Dr. Mandy Tocher, a herpetologist with DOC. “They are so hard to find and so rare that we don’t even know their conservation status.”
“They are really cryptic so we are hoping the dogs can help us in that way.”
So Dr. Tocher, and project leader Keri Neilson, are in the process of training two border terriers, sisters Putiputi Rapua and Hebe, to find geckoes and skinks (Puti hunts the geckos and Hebe the skinks).
The dogs have interim licenses to work on DOC lands but this summer Dr. Tocher hopes they will have passed the test that will enable them to graduate to a full license for DOC work.
“We have to prove they aren’t interested in non-targets. You don’t want them to be working and then start hassling cats or chasing sheep. So they set up a test, which is general obedience plus they have to demonstrate that they know their job and they can work when they are distracted by other things,” says Dr. Tocher.
This past summer Dr. Tocher’s dog, Puti, has already had a few new experiences out in the field with her handler. “She’s experienced helicopter rides, freezing conditions, sleeping in tents. It’s basically just been teaching her Camp 101, what she needs to do around camp. She can’t just go running around eating people’s meals or jumping in people’s sleeping bags,” explains Dr. Tocher.
When she has fully licensed the role of Puti and her sister Hebe will be to hunt out, but not to touch, the skinks and geckos. The dogs have been trained to find the lizards through smell, and also by knowing where to look and by being able to spot the lizards. In the case of a gecko, Puti also knows to listen to the lizard’s chirps. Once a skink or a gecko is found, the dogs are trained to lie down and shuffle backward, or if the lizard makes a run for it, to block the lizard’s path with their body.
Dr. Tocher says that the dogs will always be used in conjunction with other lizard-hunting methods, such as using spotlights at night to spot their eyes and searching for the scats and sloughed skins that can mark their habitats. “I can find some of those things but we are just hoping the dogs will assist with finding things that we miss.
” Hebe’s specialty is likely to be the chevron skink, one of New Zealand’s rarest lizards, which is believed to live only on the Great and Little Barrier Islands. According to the DOC website, less than 100 sightings have been reported since it was first described in 1906 and, because of this, very little is known about where it lives or its a way of life. Puti will help her training to use helping find new species of geckos. New Zealand has about 40 different species identified so far.
According to Dr. Tocher, the dogs are well prepared. “Now we can hide lizards in tricky places, send [the dogs] off from a long way, and with the command, they start searching and they don’t stop until they find the lizard.”