Getting Started with Conservation Dogs: An Interview with Paul Bunker

Today we're talking to Paul Bunker, owner of Chiron K9, a canine consultancy company specializing in detection, author of the workbook Imprint Your Detection Dog in 15 Days, a resource aimed at providing tools to get started in conservation dog training, and the group manager of WILDLABS' Conservation Dogs

In this interview, Paul will discuss how and why conservation dogs are becoming more accessible to conservationists looking to utilize them in detection, surveying, and fighting wildlife crime, and how the conservation tech community can get involved in the conservation dog world.

Date published: 2021/05/07

The Conservation Dogs community here on WILDLABS is growing, and for good reason! As noninvasive techniques for detecting and monitoring wildlife become more important and accessible to conservationists, dogs trained in detection have proven themselves as invaluable team members and tools for surveying invasive, endangered, and elusive species. 

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Gren, a detection dog who was trained in Horned lizard detection with owner Chris Bagley by Paul Bunker.

Likewise, conservation dogs have found a place in addressing major conservation challenges like the illegal wildlife trade and poaching thanks to their ability to sniff out smuggled wildlife or wildlife products at detection points, and work alongside rangers to patrol for poachers on the ground.

But incorporating conservation dogs into surveying and detection of any kind comes with logistical challenges that can be intimidating to even seasoned conservationists. While deploying conservation technology hardware often comes with a learning curve (and, of course, the necessity of accessing the tool itself!), training a conservation dog is obviously a time-intensive, deeply involved process that requires longterm commitment. 

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Paul at the river with Chiron K9 team member Nika, pictured during an environmental response to an oil spill. Nika is also trained in Horned lizard detection.

People like Paul Bunker, owner of Chiron K9, a canine consultancy company that offers access to detection dogs and training courses, are working to make dogs a viable and accessible option for conservationists working on the ground. In addition to offering his own detection and training services locally, Paul has also authored a workbook, Imprint Your Detection Dog in 15 Days, a resource aimed at providing tools to get started in conservation dog training. And here on WILDLABS, he's turned the Conservation Dogs forum into a great spot to educate yourself about all the incredible work conservation dogs and their handlers are accomplishing by sharing research, webinars, and other resources to help you get involved and stay informed.

Join us as we talk to Paul about what makes conservation dogs so unique to the conservation technology world, and how those working with #Tech4wildlife can engage with our furry detection friends in the field and beyond!

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Getting Started with Conservation Dogs: An Interview with Paul Bunker

When people think of conservation technology, dogs aren't often the first thing to come to mind. Why do you think conservation dogs are a valuable part of the conservation tech community? 

Dogs have been assisting humankind for centuries, primarily for hunting, protection, and companionship. It is really in the last century that more organized and formal applications for dogs has built momentum. Those applications are mostly as explosive and drug detection dogs, but also guarding supporting law enforcement and the military.

However, the areas of detection tasks utilizing dogs has increased over the last few decades, and more and more, we are seeing dogs being used in support of conservation work. Research on dog capabilities supports the use of dogs in conservation, and people are starting to see how helpful detection teams are in the field.

Part of the advantage is the broad array of targets (scents) a dog can be trained to find. And not just one scent per dog, either - they can be trained to find a variety, and so they can be helpful across many field surveys, saving time, people, and funds.

Conservation canines have been trained to find specific species such as reptiles, fish, insects, and habitation signs such as scat, eggs, and nests. They can also be trained to be helpful in the fight against poaching by detecting endangered wildlife at checkpoints, and by tracking poachers. They can even be trained to detect invasive species like Zebra mussels, invasive plants, and even snakes like pythons in Florida. The list of conservation dog uses is primarily only limited by our imagination. 

For people working in conservation tech with tools like camera traps, bioacoustics gear, drones, etc., how can conservation dogs enhance their research or open new areas of study to them? And on the opposite side, how can people with access to other conservation tech tools help community members working with conservation dogs do their work more effectively? 

I say that dogs are one tool in the tool bag, and we should look at complimenting other technologies.

Dogs have limitations just the same as any technology, but also many advantages over other technologies. So the best option is to integrate dogs into a survey with technology, providing the best system for data collection and management.

Different deployments require different tools based on the desired outcome. It is the planning stage where the capabilities and limitations of all technologies available should be screened, and the best options to meet the project's goals are selected. Sometimes this means selecting nothing more than a dog team (dog and handler), and sometimes it's better to select layers of technology that complement each other and provide a depth of capability to be as effective as possible.

It is pretty standard now for conservation dogs to deploy with GPS collars which allow the collection of tracks, waypoints, time, and motion data, ensuring accurate records are collected of the surveys and results. It could be that cameras and monitoring technology provide information that allows dog teams to deploy to specific areas. in some cases, technology added to the dog's harness helps with this. Dogs can even be trained to enter a location where humans cannot go, such as small tunnels or thick undergrowth, and drop, for example, a bioacoustics device at a specific spot before returning to handlers.

As already said, our imagination is the limitation.

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Poppy of the Chiron K9 team, pictured in work gear. Poppy is trained in oil spill response and is also being trained in Wyoming Toad and spawn detection.

Many community members probably don't know how to get started incorporating conservation dogs into their work. Unlike tools like a camera trap or an Audiomoth, you can't just order a conservation dog online to deploy in the field! So, could you give the community an overview of what options are currently available and how they can pursue this for themselves?

There are three main options:

1. Train your dog (pet or rescue) to support your job – I know people who have done this and have been very successful. However, training a detection dog is not always just as simple as it sounds, and the support of an experienced trainer would be valuable. This could also be a method used with local volunteers to have a base of teams available "on-call" to help with projects.

2. Use a service that provides conservation dog teams on an "as-needed" basis. These are becoming more and more readily available, and offer the opportunity to only use a dog team for specific durations and tasks, with none of the long-term care, vet bills, and training requirements.

3. Develop an in-house capability via professional service where the dogs are trained. People within the company are provided formal training as handlers and remain employees with the company dog.

All three options are used by different organizations, and as long as people realize it's a lot of work and commitment to be at a standard that's effective in the field, they can all be great ways to integrate dog teams into surveys.

To expand on that last question, what opportunities do you see in the future for making conservation dogs more accessible to conservationists? And what are the considerations for conservationists to keep in mind as options expand?

I am seeing more professional service providers becoming available, and more citizen scientists supporting local projects with their dogs.

There are pros and cons to each, and conservationists need to select the method that best suits their project and budget. Long-term projects which are time-intensive probably would not be able to get the volunteer base needed to sustain the workload. Also, volunteers are precisely that, and if they are unavailable at the time you need them, you cannot make them go on surveys.

Service providers will be a lot more flexible and available because it is their job, but with that comes a price. When you consider the time to train and maintain a dog, vet fees, food, and equipment, this service may not be exactly cheap.

But you must also consider these teams are proven to be more effective than human-only surveys, and much faster! So there is a trade-off between funding and efficiency.

For those who are already working with conservation dogs or would like to get involved, what resources are available? 

Options are becoming more available with taster sessions hosted by some organizations, introduction handler courses, and longer formal courses. You can also find some free webinars, along with other training opportunities, on Chiron K9.

For those who would like to try out their own dog and see if it has the essential capability, I wrote a workbook, Imprint Your Detection Dog in 15 Days, which provides a step-by-step progression plan to train your dog basic detection and response to a target scent. The workbook aimed to provide a resource that gives everything they need to know to start training their dog in detection. It also contains valuable information for people already handling a conservation dog, such as handling and storage of training samples and record keeping.

The WILDLABS Conservation Dogs group also offers an opportunity to ask specific questions regarding utilizing detection dogs in your project, training your dog, or setting up a volunteer program and scientific research detailing how dogs effectively support conservation work.

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Thanks to Paul for taking the time to talk with us about conservation dogs and the role they can play in our conservation technology work! To engage with Paul and learn more about working with conservation dogs, get in touch with him in the Conservation Dogs forum

About Paul Bunker

Mr. Bunker is the owner of Chiron K9 LLC, a canine consultancy company specializing in detection. He served over 22 years in the British Army as a Canine Trainer/Instructor/Assessor. After retiring, he was requested to establish the Specialized Search Dog (SSD) program for the Dept. of Defense in the United States. For six years, he was the Senior Technical Advisor and instructed at the DoD Military Working Dog School in Texas. After conducting a dog training school for the military, he joined a commercial dog company supporting specialized detection, eventually becoming the Director.

In 2017 he left to start his consulting and training company and specifically focused on conservation and environmental dog detection capabilities and supporting research with Universities and Federal agencies.  Realizing there was a gap in the community, he wrote the workbook Imprint Your Detection Dog in 15 Days to help those who wished to get into the detection dog world. 

Paul is also the group manager of WILDLABS' Conservation Dogs group.

Get involved in the Conservation Dogs community by joining Paul's group in our forums!

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