A dozen Northland local authority staff and keen members of the public have been working with a Southland-based expert to learn the skills they need to train their pet dogs to search for unwanted pest plants and animals.
Northland Regional Council biosecurity officer Sarah Brill said the transition from humble pet pooch to part-time biosecurity hero was not as difficult as it might seem, but it took two or three months to be done effectively, and required dogs with the right temperament, including a "busy" work ethic.
The first, and arguably most crucial part of the process was not about the dog at all— but making sure the pet's owner was suitably trained.
Invercargill-based trainer John Taylor and his 8-year-old border collie Rusty spent several days in Whangarei recently, teaching council staff and members of the public how to train their pets to find unwanted pest plants. They also successfully searched for batwing passionflower plants in the Whangaroa area.
Ms Brill says most people were familiar with the ways dogs could use their remarkable sense of smell to assist in law enforcement and search and rescue operations, but their role as searchers for unwanted plants was less well-known.
"Northland has nine species of plant, and several species of animal and/or freshwater pests that trained dogs could be a great help to accurately locate, saving time and valuable ratepayer money in the process," she said.
"The hope is that these dogs will increase our effectiveness in locating pest plants that pose a very real threat to Northland's environment." One of the key advantages biosecurity dogs had over human searchers was they could efficiently and quickly track every single unwanted plant, no matter how small, in a large target area.
"With human searchers, who typically rely on their eyes alone, there's a much greater risk that we can inadvertently miss plants," she said.
Twelve people (regional council staff and members of the Whangarei Dog Obedience Club) had now had some initial training from Mr Taylor, who had trained two of his own dogs, one to search for velvet leaf and another for spartina.
And based on what he saw, Mr Taylor expected that Northland could have several newly-trained biosecurity dogs by the end of the year.