Happy 1st Birthday to Groot!

Happy birthday to our youngest team member, Groot! Presently in training to be our next koala scat detection dog, this pup will be critical to future search and rescue efforts in bushfire and drought affected areas. As Groot has come to learn in his first year of life, there is much to learn about the koala scat dog profession. Lucky for him, his owner Dr Kellie Leigh is well equipped to teach him the tricks of the trade!

Featured: Groot sitting in the bush (left), Groot showing off his weird sleeping habits (right)

Wildlife detection dogs, like Groot and his older counterpart Smudge (who we introduced back in March, with his handler/owner Kim Edwards), are trained to detect the scent of a particular animal in order to locate it. As such, detection dogs have become critical to helping us find what is left of our koala populations after devastating bush fire seasons. These dogs are trained to detect the scent of a particular animal and/or their droppings in order to locate it and are able to detect scent at concentrations as low as one part per trillion, so they are far more effective than people in areas where wildlife can be hard to see. A dog can cover in 5 minutes double the area that 3 people would take an hour to search visually. Consequently, the value these animals have brought to our search and rescue efforts has been immeasurable.

For more on Smudge and our use of these dogs in the search and rescue of koalas, read our March article here.

From pup to pro – Training a koala scat detection dog

Training a koala scat detection dog requires persistence and patience, particularly when working with a Border Collie pup who is bounding with energy and enthusiasm like Groot. According to Dr Kellie, he has a fantastic work ethic and loves to have a job to do. In addition to his eager personality, Groot is predicted to be a big dog with his parents both weighing in at 27kg. He was named after a fictional character which appears in the Marvel comic book series and the sci-fi film Guardians of the Galaxy, but we believe the name is also suitable as Groot means ‘big or great’ in Dutch.

Groot was purchased based on his temperament, as Dr Kellie required a dog that was balanced to bold, would be happy travelling and keen to work in new environments. The selling point was Groot’s ability to retrieve at just 8 weeks old! This was a great sign as it meant that she would be able to train him using a toy reward.

Dr Kellie started off by training him to find his favourite toys, which were later swapped to finding koala scat. For these dogs it is all about the reward, so it doesn’t matter what object or scent they are tasked to find. As stated by Dr Kellie:

Sometimes it can be a tricky process to move a pup from finding his favourite toy (which is an immediate reward when he finds it), to a scent followed by a reward. I had a sequence of small and simple steps set up to take him through this transition, and assumed it might take some time to bring it all together. But being a highly intelligent border collie it turns out that wasn’t needed, even at 5 months old. He got a bit confused on the first steps, and since herding dogs are good at learning words I decided to test him by hiding a toy and telling him to find that toy by name “eg find it, ball!”, then “find it, bone!” and each time he found the right thing. So then I let him sniff some koala scat, and told him what it was; “K-scat!”. Then I hid the poop and said “find it, K-scat!”. And he did. From then on when I ask him to find K-scat that’s what he looks for. Transition done, in ten minutes, smarty pants.

The use of the term ‘K-Scat’ stems from the understanding that short, sharp words are easier for dogs to understand. ‘Koala scat’ is too long and soft-sounding, so ‘K-Scat’ is the phrase used by Dr Kellie for the target scent.

Groot in a training session with Dr Kellie Leigh

One challenge that Dr Kellie has faced whilst training Groot is overcoming the fact that he is a dog who loves to eat herbivore poop – wallaby, rabbit, whatever he can get his teeth into! As such, she has been busy training him out of the habit of eating the koala scat once has finds it. He showed some improvements for a while, but he has reportedly had a recent relapse. As stated by Kellie:

We need to see the scat to confirm it is indeed koala first, then we also want to be able to send the samples in for DNA tests. It’s not ideal if it’s covered in Groot saliva and instead of the sample coming up as koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) it comes up as Grootus slobberous!

Featured: In his spare time he loves playing with anything involving
a ball. He sometimes sings to his squeaky toys!

What’s next for Groot and our older koala detection dog Smudge?

Still in his rebellious teenage stage and very much overcoming his puppy madness, Groot won’t be officially put to work until he is at least 18th months old. This is because he is still learning and needs to build his attention span. There are also some further training hurdles he needs to overcome before he can be trusted to keep himself and wildlife safe in the field.

Smudge, on the other hand, is presently preparing to assist us with our upcoming large-scale surveys in the Blue Mountains fire zone. For more on this survey, read our past article here.

For more on our detection dog project, visit our project page here.