For the first time in over a decade, a dog is back on Raoul Island—this time to help clear the island of noxious weeds. DOC’s Geoff Woodhouse explains…
Border collie/labrador cross Maxie is DOC’s first weed detection dog.
She is trained to sniff out the distinctive scents of Passiflora edulis (black passionfruit), Psidium guajava (yellow guava) and Psidium cattleianum (purple guava), all of which are invasive weeds that strangle native plant growth.
DOC’s technical advisor for the Raoul Island weed programme, David Havell, recently returned from the island, which is located 1000 km northeast of Auckland.
“If Maxie proves as effective as we hope, it will open a range of new doors in the way the Department does its weed control programme,” says David.
He says Maxie can help the team by digging out hidden weeds they wouldn’t otherwise be able to see.
“Many of the weeds on Raoul occur in bush or grasslands, which can effectively hide a weed. We hope Maxie will improve our detection of relatively rare invasive plants before they extend the life of their seed banks and spread.”
The Department engaged Te Puke-based dog trainer Guus Knoopes last year to train a dog to detect specific weeds.
Maxie appeared on the news in mid-March, along with ranger Dianna Makotter, who received a week of training from Guus before heading to the island. Check out Maxie’s fifteen minutes of fame by clicking the picture to watch:
Dianna had to learn the commands for working with Maxie, as well as learning how to spot that Maxie has found a target weed (she lies down beside it and barks until her handler produces a reward).
Because of the rotation of workers on Raoul Island, Maxie has been specially trained to work for different handlers.
Guus taught Maxie to work for rewards such as a tennis ball, so that she can work with whoever is holding the reward.
In another first for the Department, DOC is leasing Maxie from Guus and will pay him a monthly fee while she’s working on the island.
When Maxie returns from Raoul in September, she will go home to Guus and he will cover the costs of keeping her until she returns to work at Raoul in 2016.
DOC’s Director of Terrestrial Ecosystems, Carol West, is keeping a watchful eye on the initiative, having had a long affiliation with the Raoul weed programme.
“On Raoul some of the target weed species can germinate, grow and set seed within six months, and the terrain is rugged—very steep in many places and with forest trees knocked down by cyclones and eruptions—so looking for rare seedlings is like looking for a needle in a haystack.
“Maxie, with her fantastic sense of smell, should lead us to these seedlings much more efficiently than DOC staff and volunteers with their sharp eyesight can.”
Maxie will spend the next six months on Raoul before coming home at the September 2015 changeover. She will then resume her training with Guus, who will be training her to find additional weeds such as Mysore and African Olive.