Diving in nose first: The influence of unfamiliar search scale and environmental context on the search performance of volunteer conservation detection dog–handler teams
journal contributionposted on 03.05.2021, 01:52 by Nicholas Rutter, Tiffani Howell, Arthur Stukas, JH Pascoe, Pauleen Bennett
Conservation detection dogs (CDDs) are trained to locate biological material from plants and animals of interest to conservation efforts and are often more effective and economical than other detection methods. However, the financial costs of developing and appropriately caring for CDDs can nonetheless prohibit their use, particularly by smaller conservation organizations. Training skilled volunteers to work with suitable pet dogs may help address this constraint. We sought to further develop the skills of 13 volunteer dog–handler teams that were trained in a previous study to detect myrrh essential oil in controlled laboratory conditions. We assessed search sensitivity, search effort, search precision and false-alert instances through progressive training stages increasing in size and environmental complexity. First, teams searched various-sized areas before and after 12 weeks of search training on a sports-field. Next, teams searched various-sized areas before and after seven weeks of training in bushland. Overall, search sensitivity decreased by approximately 20% in each unfamiliar context, compared to performance in familiar contexts. However, sensitivity typically improved from baseline performance by 10–20% after a period of training. Six teams found at least 78% of targets after training in bushland, yet sensitivity ranged from 29% to 86% between teams. We maintain that the foundational skills developed previously were necessary to prepare volunteer teams for field surveys involving conservation related targets. However, our results highlight the need to also train volunteer CDD teams in search scale and environmental contexts similar to their intended working conditions.