A dog’s love of playing ball has been harnessed in teaching her to find signs of endangered koalas.
Australian Koolie dog Billie-Jean has received specialised training, incorporating using her favourite ball as a reward.
Every time she finds hidden signs of a koala, the eight-year-old pooch is thrown the ball as a treat.
She’s involved in the University of Sunshine Coast’s Detection Dogs for Conservation (DDC) program which is analysing koala resilience to natural disasters.
DDC director Dr Romane Cristescu told Yahoo News Australia it takes a special kind of dog to be involved in the program.
"It's all about being obsessed with the ball – we use that urge to play as the reward and the motivation to do the search," she said.
"We go to rescue groups and ask if they have any ball obsessed dogs, because there is kind of a category of dogs who love balls so much that they're more important than food, pats, or anything.
"Those dogs are often high energy dog wants to play all day long... and unfortunately for those dogs they often end up too much for families."
How the ball training works
Training begins with the dogs being taught to associate the ball with the scent of koala poo or fur.
"It's classic associative learning, like Pavlov's reflex where the bell makes the sound and the dog is fed," Dr Cristescu said.
"They quickly make an association that the sound of the bell means they're gonna get food and they start salivating.
"We have the target scent, and we play. Very quickly the dog starts really liking that scent, because they know they're going to play and so they actively look for it."
The dog is also schooled in discrimination learning, which means learning to differentiate the koala scent from others.
To do this, the animal is presented with similar smells for which it does not receive a reward, causing the animal to quickly lose interest in everything but koalas.
Rehabilitated dogs can display concerning behaviour
With the dogs all sourced from rescue facilities, rehabilitation is also often a major component of the training.
"Depending on the dog, some have been quite badly abused, some have been neglected, some have had no socialisation," Dr Cristescu said.
"They all come with different places. Sometimes they are unsure and they need to build confidence, and they need to learn that the world isn't as scary as they thought."
The final phase involves taking the dog outdoors to make sure they can behave and not chase after wildlife in the forest.
Once they finish their training, the dogs are then tested to ensure they are operating at a level consistent with the program's needs.
Hunt for surviving koalas underway
Such was the impact of the 2019/2020 Black Summer bushfires, koalas have since been listed as endangered across NSW, Queensland and ACT.
Approximately 61,000 are believed to have perished during the fires, according to research.
Gaining an understanding of how Queensland's koalas are recovering following the disaster is central to Dr Cristescu's research, which is part of a collaboration with non-profit International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).
She said efforts to understand koala recovery were hampered by the Covid-19 pandemic, impacting planned field work on multiple occasions.
“We are hopeful that what we find this year – two years post fire – will bring some much needed good news,” she said.
“The first round of surveys taught us that even in fire-devastated landscapes, we could locate surviving koalas.”
How koalas will benefit from the poo research
Poo samples collected by the team will be analysed for hormone levels, gut microbiome and pathogen prevalence.
Researchers will also investigate why some populations are not thriving despite living in healthy habitats.
Five dogs have been trained to sniff out koala poo and fur, which can be hard for the human eye to spot.
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