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Dogs on a mission

16/06/2009

Five young springer spaniels belonging to New South Wales dog training contractor Steve Austin passed their interim assessment last week with flying colours after being put through their paces by Macquarie Island Pest Eradication Project dog training coordinator John Cheyne.

The training program developed for the Macquarie Island dogs involves an interim assessment to check their progress and suitability, and assessment for a full certificate which will be done after further advanced training.John travelled from New Zealand to conduct the assessment at Steve's business, Pet Resorts Australia, at Dural, north-west of Sydney. Assistant project manager Geoff Woodhouse was on hand to observe proceedings.

Steve was the third of the three trainers to have his dogs pass the interim assessment, with labradors belonging to the two New Zealand trainers, Guus Knopers and John Mead, successfully completing theirs recently. The dogs that have successfully completed training will travel to Macquarie Island next year to follow-up the aerial baiting phase of the project.

Steve is contracted to train a total of seven dogs for the project. Five springer spaniels, aged between 15 and 18 months old, underwent the assessment, however it was the young pup Joker that was a standout.

Geoff said that Joker was the youngest dog that John has yet assessed and described Joker as a 'very bright dog'.

Steve has another six pups coming into the training program so that he will have a total of about 12 dogs trained to the required standard to meet his contracted quota of seven. With the competing demands of his dog training and accommodation business Steve is being assisted in training by two other handlers.

"From our perspective, this is a good thing, having the dogs handled by several different people, because when they are working to locate rabbits on Macquarie Island they will need to work for different handlers" Geoff said.

The hour-long assessment of each dog required them to complete a list of 13 criteria including basic dog obedience commands such as sit and stay, walking beside the trainer, stopping on command and demonstrating understanding of the word 'no'. The dog's general physical condition was assessed as well as their acclimatisation to other dogs, people, loud noises and various forms of transport including cars and helicopters.

Geoff said that every dog grows their own personality as they develop and progress through the training regimen.

"Some are hard, some are soft, some very intelligent and others not so intelligent.

"The challenge will be to match a dog with the right dog handler. For example, we've got a dog that was previously mistreated and is quite timid. He's going to need a handler that will help to build his confidence. On the other hand, we've got a dog that is completely fearless and would need a relatively hard handler just to keep him on track."

At the same time, project team members have been watching another island eradication project, Alaska's Rat Island, with interest. It was in the news on the weekend, with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service declaring that the island appears free of rats for the first time in 229 years, following an eradication project undertaken last year.

The 26 square kilometre island is in the western Aleutian Islands, at a latitude of 51 degrees north. The rats had devastated the island's bird life by feeding on their eggs, chicks and adults. The eradication project was undertaken in October 2008, with helicopters spreading brodifacoum, the same toxin that will be used in the Macquarie Island project.

While it appears that birds are already returning to breed on the island, the project won't be officially declared a success until two years of monitoring fails to find any surviving rats.

Macquarie Island Pest Eradication Project manager Keith Springer, who visited the Rat Island project team in Alaska last year, said the Rat Island project's success is encouraging for the Macquarie Island team.

"Rat Island has many similarities to Macquarie Island - it is very remote and has similar vegetation types. While smaller than Macquarie, it was still a very challenging project logistically and used essentially the same proven techniques to eradicate rats as we will use - spreading baits from helicopters and using GPS technology to ensure complete coverage of the island. They also had non-target species on the island and needed to fly the helicopters in such a way as not to cause undue disturbance to them. They had a great spell of weather which wasn't expected so they were able to complete the baiting well ahead of schedule."

Dogs on a mission

Steve with springer spaniel, Colin. Steve has asked Colin to sit and stay while he feeds the chooks and pigeons. It's aimed at getting the dog familiar with bird life and teaching him to ignore them.

Dogs on a mission

Steve Austin and Ash were a picture of concentration during the assessment.