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  • Writer's pictureConservation Dogs Collective

Sniffing Around the Globe: Conservation Dogs of Hawai'i

f you haven't noticed yet, there are a thousand roads to take to find yourself working with conservation dogs! And Kyoko Johnson from Conservation Dogs of Hawai'i has followed an interesting path. Not only does founder, Kyoko, manage this wonderful non-profit to assist with conservation efforts, but she also runs a for-profit company called Country Canine, LLC. This diversity in options allows her to have a wider range of work and greater impact on conservation in the islands.

Based on the beautiful island of O‘ahu (in the state of Hawai'i), Kyoko’s work can take her to other islands in the Hawaiian chain, and in the near future, to remote atolls near Hawai'i. Read on to learn more about her dogs, her work, and her encounter with what could have been a shark!


Tell us a bit about the working dogs you work with.

The lineup of dogs I work with is always in flux depending on what project(s) I'm working on. I don't have a working dog kennel where I keep a set number of dogs (I wish!), so instead I train and work with an ever-changing network of local “loaner” dogs in addition to my own dogs. The use of conservation dogs is not widespread in Hawai‘i yet, so rather than having dogs with long-term specialties and full-time jobs, I train the dogs to be cross-trained on different targets, so long as the target odors won't conflict with each other in the surveys.

Photo © Tor Johnson Photography

I've worked with different breeds including Labrador Retriever, German Shepherd, Dutch Shepherd, Weimaraner, Border Terrier, Border Collie, Belgian Malinois and various mixes. I love all dogs, but Labs are especially fun to work with because they are so enthusiastic and driven, don't have any qualms about mud and rain, and instinctively know how to work the wind. Plus they are goofy, so they keep me from getting too serious! Over the years I’ve trained the dogs on various targets and tasks including endangered species (bat, seabird) fatality detection at wind farms, an efficacy study for avian botulism surveillance detecting endangered Hawaiian ducks at a national wildlife refuge, and invasive species detection including plants, snails and ants. The latest thing we are exploring is agricultural pest detection.

Photo © Tor Johnson Photography

What is your professional background? How did you get into working with dogs?

Before becoming a dog trainer, I was a photography major in college, and then an IT programmer and database administrator in New York City. After moving to Hawai‘i, I became interested in dog training because I adopted 2 pups of my own that badly needed training. My experience volunteering for a dog rescue organization as adoption coordinator and foster coordinator also made me realize that all dogs could benefit from training. So, I engrossed myself in canine training and behavior—attending workshops and conferences, studying under other trainers, and reading books. Eventually I switched my focus to scent detection because I found it to be so much more fun than classic obedience-type training. Around the same time that I started doing scent detection with pet dogs, I became involved with a local wind farm that was looking to establish a detection dog program for their habitat conservation program. I participated in their pilot project, then went on to train and handle the first program dog.

What is one wow-factor thing you like to share with people about your organization?

I am very excited about our non-profit organization’s “Nose Work for Conservation” volunteer program where the dogs are trained to detect invasive species. We did a pilot project with a native plant before we started training with an invasive plant called devil weed. Dogs in this program started out in my pet-dog nose work classes but went on to do volunteer field surveys because they have higher drive than the average pet dog, and their owners are also physically active and love to hike. Devil weed is found on trails that are quite popular with hikers and dogs (and the occasional wild pig and mongoose!), so the work requires dogs that are very well socialized and can ignore all those distractions. I hope to expand the program to include additional target species and more dogs in the coming years. Having a volunteer pet dog program is a great way to do community outreach while also contributing to citizen science and environmental conservation.

How often are you in the field?

It depends on what project(s) I'm working on. Sometimes I'm in the field 4-6 days a week, and other times I'm mostly behind the computer and training the dogs at home. When I’m not doing field work, I make sure to take the dogs on daily off leash hikes to keep them fit and ready to work.

"Nose Work for Conservation" volunteer teams

What project do you love working on the most?

All projects are exciting in their own ways, but I especially love the "Nose Work for Conservation" volunteer program we have developed through the non-profit. I like that we are able to do our own research on what might be good targets to pursue, and I also like training and getting to know new dog handlers. The great thing about doing this as a volunteer project is that we are not bound to tight timelines and super-challenging performance criteria, as is often the case on a contracted project. We get to develop the program organically to see what works, while having fun at the same time.

Have you ever had an interesting wildlife encounter you just can't forget?

I would say that working at Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge was one giant interesting animal encounter. There are tons of birds there, from endangered and threatened ducks, coots, moorhen and geese, to more common cattle egrets and herons. It was pretty overwhelming at first for me and the dogs. I wouldn’t qualify as a “bird nerd” yet, but through working at the refuge, I learned a lot about bird behavior and breeding cycles. That information helped me do our surveys with the least amount of negative impact on the birds as possible. As far as direct encounters, we had some interesting ones that were unexpected. While the dogs were trained to detect and alert on the carcasses of Hawaiian ducks, they also incidentally found other things, because dogs have such great noses and they notice everything in their environment. The dogs would stop to sniff something in the bushes, and I'd ask the biological shadow to check it out afterwards. Often it was something interesting like a nest. The refuge consists of active taro farms, so it was helpful to locate endangered bird nests so that they could create buffer zones around them. As far as interesting animal encounters with no dog involved, the most interesting one in recent memory was running into a Hawaiian monk seal, which is actually an endangered species. My husband and I were in the ocean spearfishing, and suddenly I noticed a big gray blob following my husband. At first I thought it was a shark, but then I realized it was a huge and curious monk seal. He (or she) kept following us around, and became extra interested after we caught some fish! The monk seal was really cute and reminded me of a friendly dog.

Learn more about Conservation Dogs of Hawaii and follow them along on their sniffing adventures:


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