Dogs' job is to hound out foxes
THEY'RE cute looking, but Katie and Gus are a tough, no-nonsense pair with a great work ethic who like to get their paws dirty.
They're working English Springer Spaniels, not show dogs, said trainer Steve Martin emphatically, as he put them through their paces at the Arakwal National Park in Byron Bay yesterday.
He had brought them to Byron Bay to demonstrate their skills in locating fox dens to assembled rangers from the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS).
The two spaniels were originally trained to detect rabbit holes on Macquarie Island National Park, and have been ‘cross-trained' to hunt out foxes.
To begin with yesterday, Mr Martin gave them a look at ‘the enemy' – a stuffed fox produced by NPWS staff – to put them in the mood.
Then they were off, tails wagging furiously, controlled by the briefest of whistles and the occasional treat.
Having two dogs working together was ideal, Mr Martin said, as they could cover a large area, as well as confirm what the other had found.
Yesterday, Gus and Katie roamed at speed over a tract of the land adjacent to NPWS headquarters near Tallow Beach, and located several fox holes in the dense foliage.
“The good thing about these little guys is that they can get in and under the scrub,” Mr Martin said.
Judging by the dogs' body language, the fox holes were probably inactive, Mr Martin said – but after this run for the media they were to go into the park for some serious hunting.
Cross-training the dogs to focus on fox odour could take about five to eight weeks, Mr Martin said.
This was the easy part, he said.
It can be 12 months before a dog is field proficient – meaning they pass the critical test of learning not to touch any native animal.
Mr Martin said he could now work with this pair in the middle of seals and king penguins without them losing focus.
They also learn to avoid snakes and baits, he said.
The spaniels are trained to find foxes, not to attack them.
When a den is discovered it is monitored to decide the best time to fumigate, NPWS pest management officer Lisa Wellman said.
Ms Wellman said foxes took a huge toll on endangered species along the coast, and were a big problem for shorebirds such as pied oyster catchers and little terns, as well as for mammals such as wallabies and the long-nosed potoroo.
The spaniels were part of a statewide fox threat abatement plan, which listed a number of key sites, she said.
“Bringing in the dogs prior to the shorebird breeding season would help to locate and monitor fox dens with early detection, affording some protection of the birds from foxes,” she said.
“The dogs may be used in on-going pest animal control programs in the future.”
Mr Martin is a private animal trainer with 25 years' experience.
Pet Resorts, the company he runs with his wife, Vicki, has trained sniffer dogs for a range of work, including quarantine and conservation activities.
“Steve has trained Gus (18 months) and Katie (2½ years) to national and international standards,” Ms Wellman said.
“This ensures they are target specific and are safe to use in protected areas, like national parks, where dogs are not permitted.”
Today, the dogs will help tolocate fox dens in Broadwater National Park, north of Evans Head.