Wildlife Research Wildlife Research Society
Ecology, management and conservation in natural and modified habitats

The success of using trained dogs to locate sparse rodents in pest-free sanctuaries

Anna Gsell A , John Innes B , Pim de Monchy C and Dianne Brunton A D
+ Author Affiliations
- Author Affiliations

A Ecology and Conservation Group, Institute for Natural Sciences, Massey University, Private Bag 102-904, North Shore Mail Centre, Auckland, New Zealand.

B Landcare Research, Private Bag 3127, Hamilton 3240, New Zealand.

C Maungatautari Ecological Island Trust, PO Box 476, Cambridge, New Zealand.

D Corresponding author. Email: d.h.brunton@massey.ac.nz

Wildlife Research 37(1) 39-46 https://doi.org/10.1071/WR09117
Submitted: 7 July 2009  Accepted: 14 December 2009   Published: 1 March 2010


Context. Better techniques to detect small numbers of mammalian pests such as rodents are required both to complete large-scale eradications in restoration areas and to detect invaders before they become abundant or cause serious impacts on biodiversity.

Aims. To evaluate the ability of certified rodent dogs (Canis familiaris) to locate Norway rats (Rattus norvegicus) and mice (Mus musculus) or their scent trails at very low densities in field conditions.

Methods. We experimentally tested two rodent dogs by releasing small numbers of laboratory rats and mice in a 63 ha rodent-free forest sanctuary and then determining if the dogs and their handlers could find the rodents and their scent trails. We divided the enclosure into two halves, east and west of the midpoint, and alternated releases daily between the two areas to minimise residual scent between consecutive trials. Radio-tagged rats or mice were released a total of 96 times at random locations that were unknown to handlers, followed for 50–100 m, then caught and either placed in hidden cages at the end of the scent trail or removed from the forest. Handlers and their dogs had up to 6 h to search for rodents.

Key Results. Despite the extremely low density of rodents in the effective research area of 32 ha, both dogs were highly successful at finding rodents, together locating 87% of rats and 80% of mice. Handlers reported few false positive detections. We found that well-trained dogs can effectively cover 30–40 ha of steep forested habitat in half a day (6 h).

Conclusions. Despite the limitations of our study design, we conclude that well-trained rodent dogs may be able to locate wild rodents at low densities in forest situations.

Implications. Our results support the ongoing use of certified dogs to detect rodent survivors and invaders in conservation areas in New Zealand and elsewhere. Additional research is required to trial dogs on experimentally released wild rodents and to compare the cost-effectiveness of dogs with other detection methods.

Additional keywords: canine scent detection, conservation, invasive pests, olfaction, pest management, rodents, wildlife-detecting dogs.


We thank Fin Buchanan and Miriam Ritchie in particular for their cooperation during this research. We acknowledge funding from the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology under Contract CO9X0503, and from Environment Waikato via an Environmental Initiatives Fund grant. The Maungatautari Ecological Island Trust kindly allowed us to release rodents into a pest-free sanctuary. We also thank Ric Broadhurst (AgResearch, Hamilton) for providing us with study rats and mice, cages, and helpful advice based on his long-term experience with captive rodents. Fieldwork was carried out by Scott Bartlam, Lucy Bridgman and Neil Fitzgerald (Landcare Research, Hamilton); Mark Lammas, Sven Nielson, Liam O’Halloran, Paul Simpson, Erin Winslade, and Warren Yorston (Maungatautari Trust); and Lynda Bennett and Brian Walton (Maungatautari volunteers). Jamie Mackay (Auckland University) provided us with mouse transmitters, and Debbie Chesterfield (Animal Research Manager, Massey University, Palmerston North) provided rodent cages. Additional advice came from Warren Agnew, Bruce Burns, John Cheyne, Kevin Collins, Craig Gillies, Ian Popay and Scott Theobold. We thank Andrea Taylor and three anonymous referees for comments that substantially improved the manuscript. Approval from the Animal Ethic Committee Massey University for this work was given under the permit AEC protocol 07/55.


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