SPCA canine superstars - dogs that help people
SPCA’s Invercargill centre has become one of New Zealand’s best recruitment centres. Organisations around the country often come knocking, looking for a superstar to join their team. But they aren’t looking for just anybody. They are looking for applicants who are furry, four-legged and fearless.
Over the last 18 months, SPCA’s Invercargill centre has helped four SPCA canine superstars move into careers of their own, working as detector dogs across New Zealand. Only one in 80 dogs are suitable for dog detector training, which makes the fact that the centre has produced four dogs in such a short time, exceptional. SPCA’s Invercargill centre sees an average of 76 dogs coming through the centre each year.
Why these dogs are special
Dogs work in all sorts of roles in New Zealand. They can be found in roles as varied as rounding up sheep and helping farmers in rural settings, to working in prisons alongside Corrections officers, in busy airports sniffing out items of interest, or by the side of their owners who have specific medical needs.
Dogs possess up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, compared to about six million in humans, and can be trained to detect all kinds of things. The part of a dog’s brain that is devoted to analysing smells is, proportionally speaking, 50 times greater than ours. They can sniff out blood sugar changes in diabetics, cancers, epilepsy seizures, victim recovery (crime scenes), drugs, the lithium in cell phones, tobacco, the list goes on.
Anna Robertson has been working with dogs for thirty-five years, and she now heads up the SPCA dog unit in the Invercargill centre. With five dogs of her own at home, Anna knows a special dog when she sees one.
“Oftentimes dogs who have been in shelters have street-smarts, they haven’t been molly-coddled, and are quite independent. This makes for a dog that may not be the perfect pet, but makes an exceptional worker,” says Anna.
“Certain types of dogs come through our centre every now and again that people have trouble with. They are often high energy, but they don’t show aggression, which are traits that have the potential to be successful in dog detection work.”
Mindy was surrendered to SPCA by her owners because she was so boisterous. Anna described her as “bouncing off the walls, and obsessed with her toy”. This obsession was the first sign that she might make a good detector dog. “I began to hide her toy in challenging places, such as on chairs, in cupboards, on slippery surfaces, and on high tables. “I tested her in long grass too, throwing her toy out, spinning her around a few times, and then set her off to find the scent. She found it every time,” Anna says.
This high drive to find a toy is the difference between being a pet in a home or a dog with a working career. Dogs who are obsessed with toys or have high energy levels don’t always do well as pets because they sometimes display unwanted behaviours in the home. Put them in a working environment, and they can be superstars. Anna says that a dog who can override their fear response and have a high drive to search of their toy is a rare characteristic that indicates a possible career.
“Imagine being a dog in an airport. There is so much going on, there are lots of people, lots of noise, suitcases rolling past, conveyor belts turning… A dog can be overwhelmed in environments like this. Dogs who are relentless in the pursuit of their toy, forgetting their fear and doing anything to find it, are able to work in busy places like that and not be distracted. It’s an essential skill for a detector dog to have. This trait is something innate that can’t be taught.”
Bryn Thomas, Explosive Detector Dog Unit Team leader at Queenstown Airport, echoes Anna’s thoughts.
“We had no hesitation bringing Mindy back for a trial, as she had so much natural ability. We’ve had lots of SPCA dogs working on our team over the years, and generally their career will span five to seven years. A normal day for Mindy would be coming to work with her handler, put in a run to the toilet prior to the terminal, doing normal duties around the airport, and checking attended bags. An eight-and-a-half-hour day is normal for a detector dog.”
Mindy completed her training and is now a fully-qualified explosives detector dog, working at Queenstown Airport for the Aviation Security Service.
Described as “a crazy dog who was always on the go”, Anna says that Grace, a black and white whippet collie cross who was often destructive, destroying anything she could get hold of.” Anna took her aside and started training her to find objects. “She was amazing. She had the X-factor.”
When Queenstown Airport’s Bryn came to the centre for an assessment, he knew Grace was special right away. At seven months old, she was taken to Trentham for extensive dog explosives training, and was then paired with a handler in Auckland. She now works at Auckland International Airport as a fully-qualified explosives detector dog.
Described by Anna as an “Invercargill special” (a mixed-breed dog), Paige was high energy, but showed characteristics to be a good detector dog. She also was the resident ‘pound hound’ for a while. Paige is on her course at the moment, at only 14 months old. Dog detector agencies prefer dogs which are under the age of two, as they can go through the training faster and become operational sooner.
Big Rocco, the German short-haired pointer, was so strong and full of energy, that Anna said that even getting him from his kennel to the training area was a challenge. Rocco came to SPCA an approachable but hyperactive dog, and he never showed aggression. Three dog handlers from the Department of Corrections came to test him as Anna put him through his paces, and he passed with flying colours every time.
Anna took him to Invercargill Prison for the big test to see if he could work in that environment. “Rocco was awesome to watch. Corrections are very particular about the types of dogs they get. But he was fabulous,” recalls Anna.
Rocco now works with a dog handler at Corrections, sniffing out cell phones and tobacco illicitly smuggled into prison cells.
Anna says that she always keeps an eye out for dogs who might be the next detector superstars. “You never know what kind of dog will come through our doors at SPCA, and what talents they may have. It’s very special to be able to help a dog on their way.”