Former homeless dogs trained to find explosives

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Invercargill SPCA animal shelter volunteer Anna Robertson works with five-month-old labrador/staffordshire terrier-cross pup Nala.

AN initiative begun at the Southland SPCA will see two homeless dogs become explosives detector dogs at Queenstown Airport.

Invercargill SPCA animal shelter employee Anna Robertson, who selects dogs which might be suitable, said she looked for dogs which had “high drive” and enjoyed retrieving.

“I like to get these dogs into working environments if we can. You know if they’ve got the X factor or not.”

After deciding to consider a dog for a working career, the first thing Mrs Robertson looked for was drive. A dog which played with a toy but soon lost interest was not suitable, she said.

“If I put a toy up on a table, I’m looking for the kind of dog that will jump up to get it.”

Drive was important for a dog which could end up working at an airport, because an airport environment would typically have lots of distractions, she said.

Rewards were associated with finding toys or food, and eventually the rewards would be associated with the scent the dog was being trained to look for.

The two dogs now in training to become detector dogs had completed a seven-day trial period, she said.

Queenstown aviation dog team leader Sergeant Bryn Thomas said the first of these dogs, Mindy, was “probably one of the best detector dogs Queenstown has ever had”.

Mrs Robertson said the most recent dog to be selected to work at the airport was Grace, who had exhibited the appropriate signs of high drive as soon as she arrived at the SPCA shelter.

“Dogs like Grace are high drive because they’ve got to be doing something. It’s nice to get those dogs which are going to really struggle in a home environment placed where they can do a job.”

The detector dogs would stay with their handlers until they were nine or 10 years old and would become “one of the family”, she said.

Originally from the United Kingdom, Mrs Robertson started working with dogs at the age of 15, eventually managing a kennel in Ashton-under-Lyne in greater Manchester at the age of 17. She then worked with the Greater Manchester Police dog training and breeding programme for almost 13 years, before coming to New Zealand and working with the New Zealand Police dog training centre at Trentham.

She has been working at the Southland SPCA shelter for a year.

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