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The ‘unicorn dogs’ that will help track endangered species

“Harnessing the abilities of dogs to be able to help fight extinction is really unique,” said Moss’s handler, Naomi Hodgens, a wildlife detection dog officer at Healesville Sanctuary.

One of the endangered species Moss will soon be looking for is the Baw Baw frog.

Deon Gilbert, threatened species biologist at Zoos Victoria, said it was almost impossible to find Baw Baw frogs in the wild outside of their short breeding season, when male frogs called loudly to potential mates.

A Baw Baw frog.

A Baw Baw frog.Credit:Daniel Pockett

“We are aiming to use the dogs to help detect the presence or absence of captive animals reintroduced to the wild, helping us determine their survival rates,” he said.

“Without the dogs, we would need to wait at least four years for males to reach breeding maturity and begin calling.”

To get him ready for his first assignment, Moss is learning some foundational skills with his handlers, such as recall. He’s also doing scent training — or nose work — using birch oil. After recognising the smell and performing the correct cue, he is rewarded with a treat.

Gradually, the environment is made more complex until Moss can be deployed to track the scent of the Baw Baw frog and the critically endangered plains-wanderer, a ground-dwelling bird, in the wild.

A female Plains-wander displays her elegant black-and-white collar and rufous chest patch.

A female Plains-wander displays her elegant black-and-white collar and rufous chest patch.Credit:Zoos Victoria

“We’re working on his alert behaviour – we want a passive alert,” said Moss’s other handler, La Toya Jamieson.

“That means once he finds an animal, he sits and freezes and points, so he doesn’t interact with the animal at all.”

When Moss is fully trained, he will be deployed around the state. Other dogs will join him when the squad’s new kennels are finished. But finding the right candidates is not going to be easy.

Adopting Moss involved looking through 1000 dogs on different rescue sites and testing a dozen of them to see if they could make the cut. Ms Jamieson describes them as “unicorn dogs”: engaged with people, highly motivated, and safe around wildlife.

They also need to be able to cope with distractions other sniffer dogs don’t encounter.

“The way these dogs are specialised is most of those dogs are working in quite a controlled area — they’re doing building searches or working in an airport, and there’s no chance of a kangaroo hopping past,” said Ms Jamieson.

“These dogs are pretty much the Olympic athletes of detection dogs, they have to deal with a lot.”

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