When Pipit searches boats headed for South Georgia Island, she thinks she’s playing a game.
But the one-year-old dog has a critical task. Pipit’s powerful nose is responsible for preventing rats from returning to the remote island near Antarctica.
The newest member of the Working Dogs for Conservation (WD4C) team was selected and trained for that very purpose.
Rats pose threat
The island was declared rodent-free in May 2018 after a massive $13 million, 10-year effort to eradicate rats using baited traps.
The rats first swam to shore in the late 18th century from sinking whaling ships. Because they had no natural predators, the rats thrived on the island and threatened ground-nesting birds.
The rats ate the eggs and chicks of albatrosses, terns, and petrels. They also threatened two of the island’s birds that face extinction. Neither the South Georgia Pipit, a speckled songbird, or the South Georgia Pintail, a brown duck, can be found anywhere else in the world.
Strict biosecurity measures now are used to keep rats from returning. Tourist boats are anchored offshore. Smaller vessels – that are inspected by Pipit, who got her name from the songbird – ferry people to shore.
The project to protect the island is a collaboration between WD4C, Virginia-based Natural Resource Protection Dogs, and the governments of the Falkland Islands and South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands.
Fun fact of the day: The USS Wisconsin (BB-64) is playing an important role in enhanced biosecurity efforts for South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.————-Here's the scoop: Working Dogs for Conservation in partnership with Natural Resource Protection Dogs is using the battleship to train a 9-month-old Springer Spaniel, Pipit, on odor detection. Pipit will use her skills to detect rodents in order to prevent them from returning to South Georgia where they harm the bird populations that live there.————-Don't worry…there haven't been any real rodents on-board for the dogs to work with 😉.
Posted by Nauticus on Tuesday, January 8, 2019
Fun and games for Pipit
Megan Vick, the owner of Natural Resource Protection Dogs, said Pipit doesn’t realize she’s working.
“She thinks hunting rats is fun,” Vick said.
Pipit is the first English spring spaniel that Vick has trained.
“She’s a fun challenge,” said Vick, a former Navy cryptologic technician, and conservation officer and canine trainer and handler for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
“Her exuberance for life is contagious, she knows only good in life and approaches everything full speed ahead.”
Training conservation dogs
Pete Coppolillo, executive director of WD4C, said the Montana-based nonprofit trains the world’s best conservation dogs. The organization trains detection dogs because they provide the most efficient, most accurate, and least invasive way to collect crucial conservation data.
WD4C has been training dogs for ecological monitoring for about 20 years, Coppolillo said.
The organization started with ecological monitoring, and its dogs helped with projects that counted animals like grizzly bears and wolverines.
About eight years ago, Coppolillo said, the organization started training dogs to help with anti-poaching and anti-trafficking efforts. WD4C’s dogs now work in eight countries.
In the U.S., Canada, and the Falkland Islands, the dogs protect biosecurity by fighting invasive species.
Battling invasive species
Invasive species, like the Argentine ants or zebra mussels, cost the U.S. economy $120 billion per year, Coppolillo said.
Some dogs are trained to find zebra mussels, which have caused the near extinction of many species in the Great Lakes by competing for food and growing on top of and suffocating native clams and mussels. The zebra mussels also coat boats and docks and clog pipes.
Now Pipit has been charged with preventing rats from returning to South Georgia.
“There’s no margin for error,” Coppolillo said. “The glaciers have receded, and if rats were reintroduced, they couldn’t be eradicated again.”
And Pipit’s training and work can be replicated with other dogs to contain other invasive species, Coppolillo said.
WD4C chooses shelter dogs for conservation work. Unlike law enforcement, which trains dogs to locate drugs or explosives, WD4C works to pair dogs with the task that suits them best. Training for WD4C’s detection dogs usually takes four to six months.
“We can tailor the training to what we need each dog to do,” Coppolillo said.
He calls it a win-win-win. The dogs get a suitable job, and the shelters help place dogs. And WD4C gets to add another hard-working member to its team.
“The most common dog in our pack is a mutt,” Coppolillo said. “We want to make this work for these rescue dogs.”
Sara B. Hansen has spent the past 20-plus years as a professional editor and writer. She’s also the author of The Complete Guide to Cocker Spaniels. She decided to create her dream job by launching Dog’s Best Life. Sara grew up with family dogs, and since she bought her first house, she’s had a furry companion or two to help make it a home. She shares her heart and home with Nutmeg, a Pembroke Welsh Corgi puppy. Her previous dogs: Sydney (September 2008-April 2020), Finley (November 1993-January 2008), and Browning (May 1993-November 2007). You can reach Sara @ [email protected].