Eye on the prize: Wink the Conservation Dog

Department of Conservation —  12/06/2021

Our teams are made up of all kinds of folk and, in the case of Wink, dogs too. Wink is a one-eyed Conservation Dog with a very important job: to help rid Aotearoa of Spartina grass. This is Wink’s story to becoming the dog that he is today.

By Carisse Enderwick, Community Ranger, Waikato

A well earned break. Wink on his lunch break.
📷: Carisse Enderwick, DOC

It’s a damp Thursday morning at Aotea Harbour on the wind-swept west coast of the Waikato.

But even at 5 am, Wink is up and ready. There’s important work to be done and whether he knows it or not, he’s one of only a few that can do it. He has a quick breakfast of dog roll and biscuits and he’s ready to rumble.

Wink is a border collie. He’s also a Conservation Dog. He’s been through an intense six-month certification programme to earn the right to pull on the coat each morning and head out to remote and beautiful places around New Zealand to carry out his work.

The view from Wink’s office.
📷: Carisse Enderwick, DOC

But what exactly is his work?

“Wink is a pest detection dog,” says his trainer and handler, John Taylor, who is a Department of Conservation contractor. “He’s an expert at sniffing out Spartina grass.”

Spartina up close.
📷: Carisse Enderwick, DOC

Spartina is a grassy weed that grows in the bare intertidal zone. It forms dense clumps and traps sediment which raises the level of the ground above the high tide mark, destroying the habitat for native wildlife such as shellfish and wading birds. When it’s prolific, it’s easy to see. But when it’s being controlled, like it is in Aotea Harbour, there can be very small pockets of it left, making it difficult to see. These small remnant specimens, otherwise hidden among other tall grasses, have the potential to grow and claim habitat, undoing all the work put into controlling them in the first place.

And that’s where Wink comes in. He can cover ground faster than any human can by foot, especially over mudflats, and he can detect even the smallest parts of the plant – the seeds. He bounds, he leaps, and he sometimes dives, chasing scents and always on the search for that familiar smell.

On this morning, Wink is bounding through the grass and momentarily disappears. He is constantly listening out for John’s instructions: “Go on, find! Find! Go find!”

And then, a rustle, and a high-pitched bark: a secret language he shares with John.

“He’s found something,” says John.

John wades out through muddy ground and tall grasses and comes to a small patch of grass where Wink is barking and jumping. Spartina. This one is a hybrid plant with smooth, green leaves, and a few seed heads.

“Good boy, Wink! Good boy!” says John.

It’s clear Wink understands this is what he’s out here to do. His excitement is visible and so is his canine smile.

John marking a Spartina site with flagging tape.
📷: Carisse Enderwick, DOC

Once the site is marked, the work continues. John and Wink continue their walk along the shoreline, weaving in and out of mud and tall grasses over the course of the morning. Another small patch of weeds is found before the team break for lunch.

Wink has a drink of water and then takes a small nap in the midday sun, while John tells me more about how the fates of dog and handler collided.

“Wink was five months old when he came to me. He was living on a farm where he was meant to be a working dog,” says John. “But he just didn’t seem cut out for it.”

So John took Wink in the hopes of training him to be a Conservation Dog. Those first few weeks were tough.

“Wink didn’t want a bar of it. He seemed to be a very anxious dog, shaking quite a lot,” says John. “I began to wonder if I’d be able to train him to do anything. And then I noticed his eye.”

John took Wink to the vet who confirmed there was indeed something wrong with his eye.

“The vet found an ulcer behind his right eye, and it had probably been there for a while,” says John. “It was removed straight away because it would’ve been causing Wink a lot of pain. Unfortunately, it also meant he had to lose his eye.”

The week after the surgery Wink would recover on the couch, lying over John’s legs: “He wouldn’t leave my side.”

 It was during those moments on the couch, moments of rest, recovery and care, that John started to see glimpses of the dog he would later come to regard as the best Conservation Dog he has ever worked with.

“He passed the Conservation Dog Programme assessment with flying colours when he was 11 months old. We started working on weeds, first with velvet leaf,” says John. “And then the Department of Conservation came to me and asked if I could train a dog to detect Spartina. I knew if there was a dog that could do it, it would be Wink.” Wink has been serving as a Conservation Dog for just over three years now.

John began the training and within a matter of a few hours (yes, a few hours), Wink was onto it.  

Wink and John making their way through the grass.
📷: Carisse Enderwick, DOC

The Spartina season is from November to May. During this last season, Wink and John have taken 20 flights across New Zealand, spending their days walking the intertidal zones and mudflats together on a common mission: to find any traces of Spartina and help rid Aotearoa of this destructive weed.

Wink’s story is a gentle reminder of the hidden potential in all things. There is the potential of a small seed, in the wrong place, left undetected and unseen, to grow and spread and destroy; and there is the potential of a young pup, who finds himself in the right place, nurtured and seen, to grow and roam and save. How beautiful that the one-eyed dog can teach us so much about what it means to see.

Since 2016, DOC and Kiwibank have partnered together on the Conservation Dogs Programme, find out more about the partnership here: www.doc.govt.nz/about-us/our-partners/our-national-partners/kiwibank/

12 responses to Eye on the prize: Wink the Conservation Dog

    Brenda Hill 02/07/2021 at 3:26 pm

    What a heroic dog and trainer very impressed


    Lovely heart-warning story illustrating potential in so many ways. Very nicely written. And fabulous photos too.


    such a good story, well told.


    Really good story, and well-told


    Just love all the articles you send, here I sit in Dorset UK far from NZ thank you.


    Conservation Dogs and their handlers ROCK!!

    Peter Hallinan 12/06/2021 at 1:19 pm

    I agree with Trevor. Dawg-gone, you could say. Also inspirational in another way; there is no such thing as a useless dog (or human, or any other species). Somewhere, somehow, there is a perfect part for us all to play in caring for Gaia…

      Peter Hallinan 12/06/2021 at 1:20 pm

      any chance of putting this story on “Country Calendar”?


    An absolutely heart warming story. Thank you!


    Conservation dogs and their handlers are unsung heroes. Thanks guys!


    What a lovely story.

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