Odour Detection Dogs
1996 - Queensland Department of Primary Industries were trying to see if a detection dog could be trained to locate persistent Organochlorines in ground soil. The reason for their interest was that our export beef business was in danger due to the high use in the past of Organochlorines as pesticides. Generally how chemicals are judged to be either persistent or non-persistent is by their half life time. This is if you had 1 gram, how long it would take normal environmental conditions to reduce it to a half of a gram. Most chemicals have a half life of minutes, hours, days or weeks, but Organochlorines have a 25 year half life making them extremely non-volatile hence being much tougher to locate due to low volatility and also being extremely persistent. Our export beef business was worth over 1 billion dollars and when there is an Organochlorine present in the soil on farming land, when the cattle eat the grass they also pull up it's roots and some soil is also ingested and in the animal's body Organochlorines bio-magnify up to 7 times.
The Government had set a maximum level of 3ppm or 1 part per 3,000,000 which meant they required a dog to develop a capability of finding 1 millionth of a milligram per kilogram of soil. Several very well known Trainers were approached and a meeting was organised with the most capable to discuss feasibility and my work with cadaver dogs to locate murder victims gave me a great grounding working with soil born chemicals. I was chosen to pick a candidate dog and to write up and develop a program that would allow us to train a dog and handler team that would protect our beef export business from these persistent Organochlorines. It would take 13 months to raise a pup that Tracey picked and get it trained and to then train the appointed handler and have them pass through a 70 test validation trial and an animal ethics approval. The dog then proceeded to be tested on every soil sample of 100 grams from huge acreage farms and all taken samples were sent off to independent laboratories all over Australia for testing. For the next 2 years that I was involved in this program, the soil sample results all combined came back at 98.9% correct. Remember this was not a in-house result, this was independent testing of soils from massive areas and not results from training but actual in the field work.
My next project for the Government that I won at the same time as the Organochlorine program was to write and develop a detection dog program to find Organophosphates, Synthetic Pyrethroids and Insect Growth Regulators in shawn wool as this was also harmful to our environment. I developed a program and acquired a young female Border Collie known as Jess. She had awesome drive and a healthy level of dominance - so much so she once crept into our bedroom and squarely piddled on my side of the bed after me doing some obedience with her. She was a fantastic working dog and took to the detection dog tasks with awesome vigour. The Government asked me to help them develop a testing process which I did and as always I wanted to have independent scientists run the validation trials which Jess went on to demolish again recording a 100% success. Then we did the giant wool stores and she worked off the ground and also up to 4 metres high on massive stacks of wool bales and she was awesome on her directed searches and indicated several times on contaminated wool. We were then flown to Sydney to go to the wool testing board and do some blind trials and show the management how the dog could speed up the process and save lots of money. Jess was nothing short of astounding and passed all tests impressing everyone. Naturally with a research program, not all get adopted but the technology was demonstrated at many Government functions and workshops as well as in several overseas industry related conferences.
My attention was needed in the Norm (National Organochlorine Residue Management) program as this was really the primary program and was to save billions of export dollars from Organochlorine contamination. A couple of years passed and I dropped out of the program as the appointed handler was managing it and didn't need much help so I would assist if required from time to time. Around 2001 the Government again enquired if I thought I could train a dog to find ants. Not just any ants but a Red Imported Fire Ant that has a very powerful and painful, sometimes even deadly sting that feels like being burnt by a match. They gave me a research grant and I think practically, so to me this meant I went out and found a suitable candidate dog whom was both extremely driven to work and tough. He was a no-nonsense dog whom would not suffer fools. I developed a way of acquiring the Fire Ant odour and could place it on the dog's imprint toys. After an imprint process was done, we started the infield training and 'Rusty' did excellent. He would not show any interest to any other of our native ants and there are approximately 90 species in the south east area where Fire Ants are present.
We had times out in the field with Rusty and he showed good results, on a few occasions even locating ants where they thought there weren't any. We had a display at the RNA Ekka show advising the public that a dog was trained and giving a very basic display of equipment and methodology. Rusty had several print media stories in major newspapers and had been well received. At the time, the top management had many other technologies already under test or being considered and they decided they needed to exhaust these technologies first as a dog team is very time consuming to develop to a useful tool in the early stages and then requires lots of specialist management and maintenance. So, for a few years the Fire Ant program continued on their path of exhausting the other technologies and about 2006 I was then again approached by them to see if I would again produce a Fire Ant Detection dog in conjunction with a staff member whom we had trained in dog work for the previous 10 or so years. I agreed to be the Chief Trainer and to guide the staff member on how to produce an operational Fire Ant Detection dog. This dog was not originally supposed to be a full time in field detection dog on broad acre work but more so a surveillance tool and a dog to explore full if a dog team would be truly viable as a long term strategy. A dog was found - he was not my choice as a best candidate but due to time constraints to get this project up and running and because he was only required to do smaller areas, not large acreage areas, he was adequate. I allowed the handler to use my methodology (I own the intellectual property rights for the program) and we went full steam ahead and within a few months we were putting the dog through validation trials that I also consulted on the development of. The dog again went through independent validation trials at 100% successful and was again also under Animal Ethics approval as all of our dogs for Government programs are.
There was another research program underway throughout this last phase and that was to try and train a dog to find a grub that causes havoc for many crops but the Cotton Research Development Corporation had a very big interest in use developing a dog that could locate these grubs whom go down about 6 inches into the soil and eat the cotton roots which causes a lot of destruction to the cotton crop and is very costly to the grower. We worked on this research program and had the dog working on Heliothis Armigera grubs but at that time of season the only crop that had a Heliothis population to test on was chick peas and Shakeel did locate several Heliothis grubs buried about 200mm underground. The dog and program was then turned over the the Department of Primary Industries to administrate and take over.
The next Government contract was to produce another 2 Fire Ant Detection dogs to start to build up a Fire Ant Detection dog team. I had a Border Collie cross Golden Retriever whom was the most awesome candidate dog and then went to Australian Customs Breeding program and took 3 candidate Labradors. I quickly dropped 2 of the 3 dogs and ended up training the remaining 2 dogs as Fire Ant Dogs. The dog I already had validated a couple of months later at 100% and the Labrador (from Customs) also validated very well at 97%. We then went back to Customs and this time bought 7 candidate dogs - 6 females and only 1 male. Whilst developing and training these 7, all of my staff would come and assist me as this was a massive task and their help and support was invaluable. The Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries also required me to train and develop 2 female staff members as handlers for the detection dog team as we had recently lost the senior handler and the second handler as her family was ill and she had to return to England to live so she could look after her family. All the early training was going very well and then we struck some problems which saw 2 of our candidate dogs get washed out of the program. New we were left with 5 dogs - 4 of which were Fire Ant dogs and 1 was to be developed and trained as an Electric Ant Detection dog.
The four girls passed validation trials at 100% and the male passed at 97%. Then we put on a new senior handler and new dog handler for the Fire Ant dog and also a new handler for the Electric Ant dog up in Cairns. All the dogs and handlers have done amazingly well. They have become such a great team and at the time of writing this they are going from strength to strength!