Can Any Breed be a Conservation Detection Dog?

Not every dog can cut it as a conservation detection dog. As we discussed in our article “Could My Dog Be a K9 Conservationist,” generally trainers look for dogs that are:

  • High-drive and easily motivated by toys or food or both.
  • Motivated to search and hunt for rewards.
  • Physically healthy.
  • Emotionally stable and safe to be around a variety of kids, cars, etc.
  • Lower in prey drive and unlikely to harass wildlife.

What to Consider When Selecting a Breed for Conservation Detection Dog Work

This entire article is based on the idea that dog breeds have purposes, and those limited genetic pools lead to somewhat predictable behavior. Of course not all Samoyeds are the same! However, breed is a useful starting point for considering what a dog’s mental and physical characteristics will be.

Does This Breed Tend to Be High Prey Drive?

Luckily, humans have been selectively breeding dogs for thousands of years to help us complete specific jobs. In many cases, we loved working with dogs because they were able to find the hard-to-find. If you think about the job that a conservation detection dog does, it’s not a far cry from some jobs that dogs have been doing for generations.

Locating an animal in a forest by sniffing it out is very similar to natural predatory behavior that all canids engage in. The difference with a conservation detection dog – or a hunting dog, for that matter – is that the predatory sequence is incomplete. So while a labrador will find, chase, and grab a duck, that lab shouldn’t maim it or eat it. We’ve selectively bred them to make it easier to teach them to just engage in part of the searching and hunting process.

Why do I mention all of this? Because we can use this as a partial framework for considering what breeds are suited to conservation detection dog work. Breeds that tend to have a complete predatory sequence are ill-suited to conservation detection dog work. That means that most trainers avoid breeds in the terrier group, hound group, or more “primitive” dog breeds like huskies. While huskies and Jack Russel Terriers are perfectly physically capable of this work, they are higher risk in general to have off-leash in proximity to wildlife.

This is also why you may see fewer Belgian Malinois or German Shepherds in this line of work compared to other detection dog fields. In the narcotics, bomb, or missing persons lines of work, a dog with high prey drive (like those shepherds and Malinois) is less risky compared to the same breed in the conservation detection dog field.

Is This Breed Easily Motivated and Ready to Work?

Let’s pick on the lovely Greyhound for a moment. Physically, they’re more than capable of conservation detection dog work. If we ignore the fact that they can be extremely high prey drive, let’s look at the other main reason that they wouldn’t be well-suited to conservation detection dog work: they are not easily motivated to work hard, long hours with a human partner.

Breeds that are described as independent or aloof are often ill-suited to conservation detection dog work simply because they’re likely to disengage from the work and find something else to do. Rather than working for hours to find a scent cone and then follow that scent cone to a target, they’ll just start scavenging or chasing squirrels or plodding along beside their handler.

Trainers often gravitate towards hunting or herding dog breeds to avoid this problem. Labs, Collies, and low-prey-drive Shepherds fit this bill perfectly.

Generally you’re looking for a dog that’s over-the-top obsessed with playing with toys. That’s because most of these dogs never get tired of the ball – so they don’t get full during training. The dogs also are unlikely to gain weight, which is important for these athletes. Finally, toy play tends to bring out a lot of enthusiasm in a working dog.

Some handlers are very successful using treats to motivate their dogs instead, but toy play is the norm in the US.

Motivating the dog with toys isn’t enough, though. The dog must also be ready and willing to work hard for the toy. This generally means ensuring that the dog enjoys searching, not just finding. While toy obsession is a starting place, most of the job of a conservation detection dog is actually searching, not playing ball. Finding a dog who enjoys the hunt is key.

Does the Breed Match the Handler/Trainer’s Preference?

Most trainers have a preference in personality here. I personally like Border Collies because they’re easy to train to work closely with. They were bred to work long, hard hours outdoors herding sheep. That means that they tend to be highly attuned to their handler, which makes them easy to “drive” in some ways. They learn directional cues easily.

However, many other handlers strongly prefer Labs, Pointers, Spaniels, or any number of other working/herding/hunting breeds. Ideal search patterns depend on how your team works and what your target is!

Many handlers who prefer hunting breeds actually value the independent searching. Most labs, Pointers, and Spaniels naturally know how to range, quarter, and search. They ignore their handler more, which makes it hard to mess them up. Novice handlers working with herding breeds (like my border collies) often mess up their training by not realizing that their dog is watching THEM rather than searching for the SCENT.

Finally, it’s important to remember that the dogs live with their handlers and trainers. Even during a busy field season, I spend far more hours every day with Barley and Niffler not working. It’s really important to find a conservation detection dog that you like to live with the rest of the day and week. That is definitely a personal preference!

Is This Breed Generally Healthy?

No trainer or handler wants to spend years training a dog who will need to retire at 6 or 8 years old. All handlers hope for a long, healthy partnership with their dogs. That means careful selection and research to avoid things like hip dysplasia, cancer, epilepsy, and more. Handlers look for breeds that are relatively long-lived and healthy.

Of course, there’s always variety within breeds. Breeds like Boxers and Dobermans may truly enjoy and excel in this line of work, but simply are not healthy enough for most handlers to select them. Boxers are also brachycephalic, meaning their shortened nose can limit their ability to thermoregulate by panting. This is dangerous for a working dog. Dobermans are riddled with health issues as a breed. While both of these breeds are excellent working dogs, they simply aren’t healthy enough as a whole for most handlers to take the risk.

Is This Breed Generally Friendly and Safe to Travel With?

Conservation detection dog work is relatively amenable to dogs that don’t like kids, cars, or other dogs. Unlike search-and-rescue dogs or narcotics dogs, the work doesn’t inherently require the dogs to work closely with strangers, cars, and other dogs. I know several highly successful conservation detection dogs that require careful handling due to their behavioral issues ranging from anxiety to aggression.

However, most conservation detection dog teams travel cross-country or even internationally. They stay in hotels, stop at truck stops for exercise during road trips, and do demonstrations for schoolgroups (watch Barley and me in action doing this in 2019 back when we worked for another organization). Most handlers have multiple dogs, and it is simply much easier to work with an individual conservation detection dog that rolls with the punches of life.

Some breeds that excel at this work, including my beloved Border Collies, tend to be anxious and can be highly reactive to kids, cars, and other stimuli. This is an important consideration and likely relates to why more trainers and handlers are gravitating towards Labs and Spaniels recently!

Unfortunately, breed bans in many areas also limit some breeds that are well-suited to conservation detection dog work, including pit bulls. While pit bulls and other bully breeds can be truly wonderful work partners, they can be logistically challenging because hotels or even entire municipal areas may ban their presence.

Is This Breed Intelligent?

Searching for odor is hard work that requires diligence and enthusiasm from a dog. Sourcing that odor, or following the scent particles in the air back to the source of the scent, is a cognitive challenge. Research suggests that cognition and intelligence is key to working dog success.

Luckily, the vast majority of herding and hunting breeds that fulfill the above requirements are also intelligent enough for the job. There’s always individual variation and training can help a dog learn to problem-solve, but intelligence is a factor.

So What Breeds Are Best for Conservation Detection Dog Work?

We’ve already mentioned most of the most popular breeds and breed groups for this work:

  • Labrador Retrievers are perhaps the most natural fit for this work. They’re hardworking, smart, fast, friendly, and low in prey drive. Midwest Conservation Dogs uses primarily Labradors.
  • Border Collies are also popular with us at K9 Conservationists and theCanid and Reptile Behaviour and Olfaction Team at Dalhousie, though their focus on people can make them tricky to handle.
  • Springer Spaniels are booming in popularity but are still somewhat rare.
  • Belgian Malinois are very popular as working dogs, however their high prey drive can make them risky to work with.
  • Cattledogs are extremely popular, notably with Rogue Detection Teams.
  • German Shepherds have similar pros and cons to Belgian Malinois due to prey drive and reactivity concerns.
  • Australian Shepherds are also quite popular but seem somewhat overshadowed by border collies.

Of course many organizations, especially Working Dogs for Conservation, rely heavily on mixed-breed dogs and shelter mutts! In fact, our founder dog Barley is 78% Border Collie, 9% Chow Chow, 6% Labrador, and 7% supermutt!

The bottom line is that many breeds and mixes are suited for this work. Breed can be a helpful launching point for researching and finding a conservation detection dog, but it doesn’t tell you the whole story of selection.