Things to Consider When Starting a Conservation Detection Dog Program

If you’ve used conservation detection dogs in the past or are considering them for future projects, you may wonder whether it’s better to just get a dog yourself versus hiring an expensive outsourced team.

There are a lot of factors to consider when starting a conservation detection dog program from scratch, though: dogs are much more complicated to use and maintain than camera traps or GPS units! 

While it is tempting to have the “tool” in-house and avoid the fees of hiring an outside team, there are many cases where it may be simpler and more effective in the long run to hire an outside expert (like the K9 Conservationists Team).

This list is far from complete but is based on years of experience working with and running conservation detection dog programs in a variety of capacities. Above all, it’s imperative to think long-term and big-picture before acquiring a conservation detection dog for your program.

Will Turnover Doom Your Program?

Even if you only have one dog in the program, that dog will need care, training, and a handler for 10+ years. If your average staff turnover is every 4 years (or 18 months), your program is going to have a very difficult time maintaining a consistent handler relationship for the dog.

Every time a handler leaves, they may bring with them some knowledge and skills.

Hiring to replace them will be difficult and can disrupt or even doom the program. It’s imperative to have a strong plan in place in the event that handlers don’t stay for the duration of the dog’s career.

Who Owns the Dog?

A potential solution for the turnover problem is to have the dogs owned by individual handlers. When the handler leaves, so does the dog. While this ensures continuity and skills stay consistent for the dog, it obviously poses the problem of what to do if your only K9 leaves with their handler. It also introduces other tricky questions: who pays for veterinary bills? Food? Gear? 

Having the dog owned by the organization may help simplify financial questions, but it reopens the continuity issue. It also opens the question of primary responsibility for the dog – it can be a real emotional challenge for staff to have the dog live with and bond with someone who is ultimately not the decision maker in that dog’s life.

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Does Your Staff Have the Expertise to Launch this Program?

Conservation detection dog work is incredibly specialized. Many programs have gotten into trouble because they relied on training advice from a police K9 trainer, a local scent work competitor, or any number of other confident assistants.

Between the dog husbandry, odor dynamics, sample storage, sample acquisition, field safety, first aid, survey techniques, and much more, it is a big ask to either hire or train a current staff member to adequately launch a conservation detection dog program. 

Even other similar fields like Search and Rescue are very different from conservation dog work and may not translate well.

Where Will the Dog Live?

In most cases, you’ll want the dog to live in a home environment with a staff member. This can be done well with careful protocols to ensure the dog’s safety, health, and work ethic are not compromised. It’s often best for the dog to have a rich home life.

However, this means that one staff member is wholly responsible for the dog.

How do you count hours when the dog has diarrhea in the kennel in the middle of the night? How do you manage sick or vacation days if that handler cannot manage the dog? Where does the dog go if that handler leaves for a new opportunity?

How Will You Support Handler Education and Expertise?

Best practices are expensive and require extensive expertise. Do you have the financial and time budget to support the staff in their significant new continuing education, mentorship, and gear needs?

Working dog care and training is an entire field of study that has very little overlap with ecology, conservation, land management, and other fields your staff may have background in. 

Does the Handler Have Bandwidth for this New Project?

Caring for a working dog is a year-round, every-day role. The new K9 will need exercise on Christmas Day and may need a 3am vet visit the night before a conference. If you expect staff to care for and maintain a working dog, you’ll need to budget at least a few hours every day for that staff member to exercise, train, bond with, and care for the dog aside from their normal duties.

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These dogs are not normal pets and require lots of exercise and enrichment to remain happy, healthy, and effective workers. They have emotional and physical needs that cannot be neglected. Every. Single. Day. 

Will You Get Enough Use Out of the Dog in the Long Term?

Need I remind you that this new conservation detection dog will have a working lifespan of nearly a decade? If your project does not have long-term funding, are you really sure that you can put this high-energy dog to use five years down the line?

Unlike a thermography drone, you can’t simply put the dog in a storage closet for the winter or until the next survey is funded.

If you’re not using the dog for a significant time of the year, every year, it likely doesn’t make sense as far as staff time and budget to acquire your own dog. If you only have funding for 2 years, it really might not make sense to get a dog – hire a team instead.

What Happens if the Dog Gets Injured?

It may be tempting to just have one working dog – after all, that mitigates many of the concerns in the rest of this post. But working dogs can easily get sick or injured, especially in challenging field conditions.

If your project’s success is contingent on having a consistent working dog, it may be unwise to only have one dog “on staff.” Again, hiring an outside conservation dog organization with multiple dogs may protect you from these concerns.

How Will You Acquire the Dog?

Sourcing a conservation detection dog isn’t easy. It’s often estimated that only 1 in 1,000 dogs is really cut out for this work. It’s unlikely that your staff’s pet can do this job, just like it’s unlikely that their child is the best fit for grantwriting.

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It takes time, dedication, and expertise to find a dog that can handle this work. From there, it can be months of hard work before realizing that the dog isn’t the right fit for a project.

Are you and the staff ready for the hard discussions of rehoming a dog? How will you troubleshoot training? Do you have the budget and network to get assistance with the dog if problems come up?

What About Non-Work Dog Behavior Issues?

Some years ago, I heard of a biologist who’d acquired a conservation detection dog to help with her research. The dog was exquisitely trained and was a rock star in the field. But he hated other dogs.

Even though this dog was excellent as a partner for work, he made the biologist’s life very difficult. She sought constant assistance for his behavior issues, which was expensive and emotionally taxing. She modified her vacation plans and stopped having friends with dogs visit. This is a huge ask for a staff member, regardless of how dedicated they are to your program.

Dogs aren’t robots and can be exceedingly difficult and unpredictable, especially when you’re looking at high-drive working dogs.

Do You Have the Long-Term Financial Stability for the Dog’s Care?

We haven’t even mentioned food, veterinary bills, and other routine care for the dog. My working dogs have also had emergency vet visits for foreign body ingestion, a ruptured intestine, a brown recluse bite, torn hip flexors, ripped toenails, stick impalements… the list goes on. Keeping a conservation detection dog healthy is no small financial burden.

Of course, it may still make sense to you to start an in-house conservation detection dog program. If you’re interested in such an endeavor, reach out to K9 Conservationists! We’re happy to assist with mentorship, coaching, dog acquisition, handler workshops, and more. 

If you’re not sure if starting a program is right for you, we’d be thrilled to partner on a trial run of working with conservation dogs. We’ll also explore the options that make the most sense for the long term success of your project.