22 January 2019
A nine-month-old puppy called Zorro has been flown in from Tasmania to the University of the Sunshine Coast this week to learn the art of finding owl vomit.
Dr Celine Frere and Dr Romane Cristescu from Detection Dogs for Conservation at USC are helping train Zorro as part of a collaborative interstate project. USC is of the few Australian universities that trains detection dogs for conservation.
Zorro’s bootcamp was booked by researchers from The Australian National University’s Difficult Bird Research Group, led by Dr Dejan Stojanovic, who crowdfunded more than $60,000 to get Zorro ready for the job.
They want him to detect masked owls, which are endangered in Tasmania and are difficult to find, in order to learn more about what they need to survive.
USC Detection Dogs for Conservation project manager Dr Romane Cristescu said this was the first time her team had been asked to help train a dog to detect owl pellets (regurgitated indigestible parts of prey on the forest floor), however the team’s work in detecting other animals have included 3000 searches for a variety of conservation projects for koalas and quolls since 2011.
“At the moment it is about making a fun game about finding a target scent so we are just playing a lot and finding smelly things. He’s berserk about the game so he’s doing really well,” Dr Cristescu said.
She said Zorro – a border collie springer spaniel or “sprollie” - was also learning quickly from USC’s star sniffers, Maya (12) and Baxter (5).
“He’s quite in love and proud to be part of the club, so it seems old dogs can teach new dogs new tricks,” she said.
The other side of his training is to acclimatise him to other animals, so he’s living with cats and chickens.
“We’re training him to think all chickens and other animals are boring and that the specific target scents are the most exciting thing and will lead to lots of fun times.”
Zorro is on the Sunshine Coast for 10 days of intensive training and will continue to practise when he goes home to Tasmania. After that, the USC team will visit Tasmania to conduct field trials with Zorro, in the hope of deploying him for real fieldwork searching for Tasmanian masked owls before the end of the year.
“The collaborative approach is really what set this project apart, and it’s wonderful to be able to work together and across Tasmania, Canberra and the Sunshine Coast to get a good outcome for conservation,” Dr Cristescu said.
Zorro’s handler, ANU Masters student Nicole Gill, said Zorro had been chosen for the job at just seven-weeks-old.
“He was friendly, independent, confident and had a good play drive and we could tell he was motivated by food,” she said.
“He’s also quite intelligent and curious, and now that he’s settled in, he’s loving being with the big dogs.”
USC Media: Janelle Kirkland, 07 5459 4553, firstname.lastname@example.org