Dogs and wildlife: Being a responsible dog owner

Department of Conservation —  30/01/2018

By Laura Boren, Science Advisor – Marine Species and Threats Team, Department of Conservation

I grew up with dogs, but when I moved to New Zealand to study and pursue a career in Marine Conservation, I became dogless until 2015 when I took Mack into my home. Working for DOC meant being a responsible dog owner suddenly became a higher priority. I enjoy taking Mack to different places for walks and living in Wellington, that means beaches or coastal trails. Before going to a new place I always jump online to see what the dogs rules are – Are they allowed? Do they need to be on leash? Or can they be exercised off leash in specific areas?

Mack and Laura at Mack’s first Rally obedience competition.

I was particularly fussy to know about areas where I knew New Zealand fur seals could be found, since I studied them at University. I didn’t want Mack to have an interaction with a fur seal that might impact on the seal’s ability to rest, or result in Mack getting hurt. I soon realised that:

New Zealand fur seal. Photo: John Barkla

1) it’s not always easy to find out what the rules are,

2) many people either aren’t aware of the rules or disregard them, and

3) everyone’s definition of a “dog under control” varies.

With increasing reports of fur seals and penguins being harassed or even killed by dogs, I was interested in combining my passions of marine conservation and dogs. That’s how the first project with Worcester Polytechnic Institute, an engineering university in Massachusetts came about. In 2017 we had a team of 5 students assessing people’s perceptions about dogs and coastal wildlife.

Mack fetching.

They came up with a number of messages to help dog owners be more responsible when exercising their dogs on beaches:

  • Feet on sand, lead in hand (always have your lead handy in case you need to keep your dog close)

  • Don’t let your dog go astray, keep them leashed four car lengths away, and

  • Help ’em out, give a shout (let other beach goers know when wildlife is present).

Little blue penguin. Typically found on Wellington coastlines. Photo: Janice McKenna

One of the most interesting findings of their wider study, was that people often didn’t view seabirds as wildlife. So this month a new team arrived and is hitting some Wellington and Kāpiti beaches to better understand dog owner motivations. I’m looking forward to their results to see what more we can do to facilitate good dog owner behaviour while finding a balance between protecting wildlife and allowing dog owners the ability to exercise their dogs.

Black billed gull. Rare New Zealand seabirds. Photo: AndrewWalmsleyPhotography.

In the meantime remember, when you are out and about this summer with your dog:

Know before you go – check online for rules at different locations, some councils have recently changed rules and signs may not be up to date.

Keep an eye out for wildlife – always carry your lead and leash your dog when moving around wildlife. Let others know if seals or penguins etc are present.

Call your dog to you as soon as you spot wildlife – if your dog doesn’t recall or return to you consistently on command, consider looking into an obedience club. There are plenty around and classes are good for you and your dog to bond and become a team, so when you’re out and about, you know they will be under control and safe.

Puti the elephant seal. Elephant seals are also found on New Zealand beaches, typically in the South Island. Photo: DOC.

When I am out with Mack, my goals are about being responsible around native wildlife, and knowing that my dog is safe and a good canine citizen. Training, and following some of these simple guidelines will help you achieve that.

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