Creating a new way forward for K9 units in conservation

The Power of the Pack or is it the Schnoz…

By : Johan van Straaten – Head Trainer of the K9 Unit (Dog Master)

Although canines are one of the oldest tools used in the art of detection and tracking, they are still proving, without a doubt, to be the most effective. As head trainer or ‘Dog Master’ of the Southern African Wildlife College’s K9 Unit, I have been fortunate enough to have a front seat to the growth, development and innovation of this asset which I believe has not yet been fully tapped into.

When it comes to the use of dogs to counter poaching, the statistics are clear – to be successful, you need to deploy a canine unit. The use of dogs is now established and accepted by the industry, so it now becomes a question of how we can further enhance the effectiveness of this tool hence the introduction of free running packs.

In essence dogs have their own unparalleled high tech tracking devices, their “schnoz”. A tracker dog linked to modern technology is thus a formidable combination. We use satellite tracking collars linked to navigation screens to track our free tracking dogs given that they run at speeds much faster than humans can over rough terrain. This has been extremely successful as once surrounded by dogs coming from different directions, poachers know the game is up having also dropped their weapons in attempt to get away.

There are however still two major components of a canine unit, the dog and its handler. I have designed our training approach to fine tune both and be adaptable based on trial and error. I believe it is important to be able to learn from mistakes and see them as lessons that we can improve from. We are constantly testing for best practice using what the College describes as a holistic approach.

I believe it is important to be able to learn from mistakes and see them as lessons that we can improve from.

Firstly when it comes to dogs, breeding is vital. It’s all about good genes and ensuring that we breed the best when it comes to intelligence and stamina. This is an ongoing process and will continue to produce better and better dogs which are not necessarily breed specific but are made for tracking and detection work. It’s also not simply about being the best and discarding the rest. The older dogs, some of which come from our original free tracking packs, become the teachers of both puppies and handlers. 

Then the handlers must be experienced, well-trained and have a good understanding of their role. Passion is a non-negotiable and this is made evident in the commitment of our handlers to their dogs and to each other, and in the hours spent running exercises out in the field.

That said it’s also about the quality of the care they receive. Dogs need to be stimulated, exercised and well fed especially given our needs for strength and stamina. Here we are very fortunate to have the backing of Pack Leader suppliers of Orijen dog food, which is biologically appropriate and contains the best ratio of natural high quality protein sourced from nature.

In testing for best practice, one of our newest techniques which is proving to be highly effective is night tracking. This is not completely new in that it is already being used to a degree in larger reserves, where contact with poachers is avoided. In smaller reserves that are only a few hundred or thousand hectares in size, we need quick, effective tracking before the poachers escape over the fence and off the property. When it comes to tracking poachers, the greatest advantage they have is the cover of night when they are moving. So what if we could successfully track and apprehend them at night? It is the best chance we have to actually track successfully, this is due to the spoor being fresher and the fact the cooler night air means our dogs can be active for longer. It does of course come with its challenges as lighting is limited, but the results have been quite remarkable.

We simply help dogs, who are extremely intelligent, do what they do naturally.

At the end of the day I believe we’re dog facilitators not trainers. We simply help dogs, who are extremely intelligent, do what they do naturally. Often they actually figure out things for themselves and as their handlers we just follow their lead. My vision for our K9 unit is that due to our unparalleled operational experience, we will within the conservation context become the leading “facilitators” of both dogs and handlers in South Africa and then possibly Africa as a whole. I believe this goal, and that of ensuring the protection of threatened species, is well within our grasp if we continue to take the right steps needed to achieve this.

Support our K9 Heros

Keeping the dogs healthy and in peak condition is of paramount importance, especially given the challenging circumstances in which the dogs work. While every effort is made to keep the dogs safe and healthy at all times, they operate in the Greater Kruger National Park, and are exposed to all the dangers present in this environment.

Most importantly, we have to pay huge kudos to our supportive donors, especially the Ivan Carter Wildlife Conservation Alliance, Tusk Trust, Pack Leader, International Rhino Foundation, Friends of African Wildlife, MyPlanet Rhino Fund (MySchool MyVillage My Planet) and the Our Horn is Not Medicine Campaign Donors. Without them we would not be able to continue with this critical work.