Today we are sharing Louise Wilson’s story, founder of Conservation K9 Consultancy. Her words are truly inspiring (and she has some great stories from the field to share)!
One of the incredible things about our profession is making friends around the globe! Conservation K9 Consultancy is based in North Wales in the United Kingdom and we are in awe of Louise’s groundbreaking work. As one of the first standalone organizations in the UK to work with conservation dogs, she has also become an industry leader; helping other organizations as they develop. Louise’s work and incredible heart has taken her all over the world, including South Africa, Gabon, Germany (wolf, lynx, and salamander detection), Switzerland (otter spraint detection), France (bear scat, bat carcass, bone), Tanzania, Mozambique, Falklands (vermin detection), and Montana (bear scat).
Conservation K9 Consultancy (CK9C) works with dogs trained to detect biosecurity (vermin) species, pine marten scat, bat, bird, and amphibian carcasses, dormouse nests, and water vole scat. Additionally, Louise takes on a collaborative approach, and has trained a great crested newt detection dog and handler for Wessex Water in the UK, who she can call upon when needed.
Tell us a bit about the working dogs you work with.
My amazing dogs are the reason I am here doing what I do. After years working with explosive detection and contraband detection dogs, my mission for CK9C was to use dogs for conservation and wildlife monitoring in the UK (where they are very rarely used for conservation). K9 Consultancy dogs are ALL rescue dogs. I help with a local rescue and assess dogs that are deemed unsuitable for typical pet homes (or too unruly that other rescues can't rehome) and see if there is an opportunity to give them a “job” that suits their needs. I currently have 11 dogs, which include a mix of Springer Spaniels, Labradors, Cocker Spaniels, a Malinois, and a Staffordshire Bull Terrier mix. Each dog is at different stages of training and maturity. We allow all our dogs to be dogs first and foremost, know love and affection and we build a bond through team work before training, we are colleagues and friends!
Some of our dogs are multi-odour detection dogs and some focus on a single odour. For example, Henry is my super sniffer dog that does Hedgehog detection. He has been in the news a lot and conducts surveys for a Ph.D Student and lecturer at Hartpury University in the UK, People Trust For Endangered Species, and British Hedgehog Preservation Society. He came to me at 8 months old and he had already been in 5 homes. We gave the poor boy a loving, active home and he is by far one of the most clever dogs I have worked with in the past 17+ years.
What is your professional background? & How did you get into working with dogs?
I’m a Graduate of Chester University in Animal Behaviour and Welfare. Upon graduation, I volunteered for months at a new detection dog company near where I lived, starting as a kennel maid, then became an assistant trainer, then a trainer/handler, and finally worked my way up to Head Trainer and Director and Shareholder. As the Head Trainer and Director and Shareholder, I managed 60 dogs and 30 staff at any given time.
My first discipline was explosive training and handling, then drug detection, cash, tobacco, illegal immigrant detection, product of animal origin detection - the list goes on. I helped set up the first Central African dog section for Detection Dogs for Conservation, product of animal origin detection dog team for the Gabonese Government and Wildlife Conservation Society. In 2015, I started Conservation K9 Consultancy, which has been the most frightening thing I ever did, but also the best decision I ever made! This is truly what I am meant to be doing and it's my calling... I am a stronger person for it and happier! Follow your heart and passion.
What is one wow-factor thing you like to share with people about your organization?
WOW FACTOR- well that's the dogs surely! The dogs are extremely amazing; their adaptability, work ethos, efficiency, speed, affection, love, and those 250,000,000 scent receptors that make what they do magical. One big thing is the fact that I can do a 4 mile transect in a day when I’m working with a dog, but one of our working dogs, such as Luna (labrador retriever), can cover up to 15 miles with her quartering and search method. Luna helped detect the presence of pine marten in a forest. They had not been seen in 100 years, but her finely tuned nose highlighted recent activity, which prompted our client to set out camera traps. That resulted in the first breeding population of pine martens being caught on camera. Another WOW moment is the success of the dogs and handlers I trained in Gabon. With the help of the dog/handler teams, over 60 elephant tusks hidden in a container in the back of a large truck were seized. Another is with Mr. Henry, our Hedgehog detection dog, being able to alert to a Hedgehog over 250 meters away! I learn something every day whilst working with my dogs, I am in awe of them.
How often are you in the field?
In regards to training and preparing the dogs for operational searches, this is a weekly, if not daily, activity. However, operational deployments are dependent on the species we’re working with and the time of year. In 2019 we were in the field weekly with operational searches for either Hedgehog, bat carcass or bird carcass. In between those deployments, We were in the field with shorter assignments for biosecurity (biosecurity measures are those which are designed to reduce the risk of the spread of disease. For K9 Consultancy this would be locating rats and mice). When we aren’t deployed, I am tasked with training and consulting dog handler teams around the globe due to my experience. I am happy to promote the use of dogs in conservation as I consider helping and guiding other teams around the world as part of my vocation. This usually takes me to other countries 1-2 times each month, running courses to help others get started in conservation detection.
What does your typical work day look like when at ‘home’?
A typical work day involves waking up early to the madness of 11 dogs, and a 4-year old human. The dogs are fed breakfast or a snack and given access to their playpen and free-run compounds. We have to sort the human out and get him off to school. Then, all 11 dogs are loaded in the vans and taken to our Headquarters, which is about 10 minutes from my home. The dogs have 138 acres to run, swim in the lake or play in the forest. After all the dogs are exercised we commence our training. Depending on the individual dog’s training plan, this will include indoor training in the scent school classroom or outside on the grounds. Tasks include scent imprinting, indication training, search patterns, various hide difficulties, etc. At the end of the day, we return home where the dogs do a mad half hour in their compounds and playpens. They love their social play with each other, plus they love to smell each other to check out what training each of them has been doing - training jealousy. Beyond training our dogs, we also run many workshops and handler courses on site.
What is one fun story from the field (or with your working dog) you laugh about every time?
After over 17 years and training of over 700 dogs that’s a hard one to pick! One that I tell a lot of people is about Luna. Even though she is trained to find pine marten poo in the woods, she is also a good communicator for other strange things she comes across, and I am really her translator. In particular, when she is near badger sets she acts particularly strange...and I always know that there is a set near. One day she came across a substance that she really wasn't keen on, and then ran toward me and begged me to go with her so I did, as all good dog handlers do when their dog asks :) We came across a huge pile of what looked like alien remains, and Luna was obviously really disgusted by this find and she wouldn't even look at it. My expert client who was with us confirmed it was a very rarely seen badger anal jelly- which always gets a laugh when its discussed. Luna and I were a bit disgusted, however the client was very thrilled about finding this specimen. Another one is Hettie, my little cute/ugly girl cocker. When training for water vole and water vole scat she got so excited when she indicated on the scat she also had a poo at the same time- a celebratory poo we call this! She is adorable. She also goes cross eyed when she indicates on her target which is equally hilarious.
Have you ever had an interesting animal encounter?
That's the thing now, with conservation - compassionate conservation is about having no impact on the animals you're monitoring. You get to see their poop, carcasses, nests, field signs, but never the living wonders. However, my job has taken me to the most wonderful parts of the world, I have had the most wonderful experiences. Whilst in Gabon, I had the chance to go and see humpback whales breaching. I was also asked to help with baby sea turtles by helping them find their "right way" to the sea as many get disoriented due to false light and other distractions. We had to wake up really early and patrol the beach to then help pick up those little new hatchlings and direct them to the sea. I collected over 20 that morning and it was amazing and sad all at once. With regards to the UK, I am like a kid in a sweet shop with any animal or any wildlife I see. I am happy and excited by anything but being able to find so many hedgehogs whilst searching was truly wonderful and exciting. The places they can hide without you knowing are really amazing. Having grown up with memories of hedgehogs in our garden to now never seeing them, it was wonderful to be involved in the project.
Learn more about Conservation K9 Consultancy and follow them along on their sniffing adventures: