As dog owners, enthusiasts, trainers, or handlers, we take our dogs' health and wellbeing seriously. Ethical decisions are a part of everyday life, but when it comes to our dogs and to the planet, ethics are especially important. At Conservation Dogs Collective, we practice ethical dog training at every step of the process, from foundation training to real fieldwork scenarios.
What is "ethical" dog training?
All of Conservation Dogs Collective's Finders (our dogs) are trained through reward-based, positive reinforcement methods. It is imperative that each of our Finders' emotional and physical needs are met, which not only keeps the dogs happy and healthy, but also provides outstanding results in the field.
We have taken a strong stance in favor of the welfare of our Finders:
We do not use force, pain, or coercion to train our Finders, especially the use of aversive equipment such as choke, prong, or shock collars.
We do not deprive our Finders of basic needs in order to increase their motivation.
We avoid selecting Finders who are so fixated on toys (or other objects) that they spend their waking hours in a compulsive frenzy and are rarely able to truly relax.
We not only provide our Finders with safe and ample opportunities to practice species-appropriate behavior, but we encourage them to do so.
We structure our relationship on cooperation and trust, rather than compliance "or else."
We advocate for our Finders in all situations, including home life, fieldwork, and during public interactions and demos.
We don't accept high-risk projects where dangers cannot be reasonably mitigated.
Our Finders live in our homes, not a kennel.
Our Finders live with one Keeper for life. We do not reassign dogs or pass dogs from Keeper to Keeper.
How can you be ethical while conducting conservation efforts?
As we prepare for each year's fieldwork season, there is much to plan for. Finders spend weeks learning new target odors, and must be ready both physically and mentally. Our Keepers are set with the task of preparing a rigorous exercise and training plan, as well as a plan for fieldwork deployment.
The Finder-Keeper teams must reflect on how disruptive they may be to all species residing in search areas. Although the Finders may only be searching for one specific species, we recognize that many others may be effected during the process. It is our goal with every project to minimize the pressure our presence may cause to local wildlife, their habitat and the overall ecosystem. We work closely with local experts to understand the potential harm our presence may cause, and we implement mitigation strategies wherever possible. For example, we may pause, reduce searches or limit searches to certain times of the day during crucial wildlife reproductive windows, or use long lines and careful search plans to minimize damage to sensitive native plants.
Essentially, we strive to follow “Leave No Trace” guidelines, meaning we leave areas as untouched as possible and in an even better state, when we can. However, we have to take into account that this may not always be possible – for example, our bumblebee surveys may require us to leave markers at potential nest sites. In these cases, we opt to use flagging that is made of natural materials, is safe for wildlife and biodegrades quickly. We pack our trash out and pick up litter that others have left behind. We clean up after our dogs and take care to avoid dropping treats that may attract new predators to the area.
How do we ensure our odor samples are ethically obtained?
One necessity of scent detection training is of course odor samples! Considering that our dogs are sniffing out scents of other animal species, odor samples are not always easy to access. In fact, some of our target odors are endangered or threatened species, such as the rusty patched bumblebee.
The majority of our projects do not require us to search for living wildlife. Instead we are able to use secondary evidence such as abandoned nesting material, scat, molted skin, carcasses, eggshells, urine, feeding sites and more.
On the rare occasion that our dogs must find living wildlife, we strive to obtain representative and ethically sourced training samples by sourcing from organizations that have the species in captivity. Under no circumstances will we accept samples from roadside zoos or private collectors. Instead we reach out to wildlife rehabilitators, accredited zoos that align with our mission or protected sanctuaries where compromised wildlife can safely live out their natural lives.
On the other hand, some of our canines sniff out invasive species, providing us with a plethora of sample opportunities. In these cases, we shift our focus to biosecurity and containment by taking every possible measure to avoid inadvertently introducing invasives to new areas during training.
What is the land ethic and how do we utilize it?
While it may be true that conservation is a scientific endeavor at its core, we recognize the importance of approaching conservation as a collaborative societal responsibility. In order for us to truly achieve our goal of bettering the planet through the help of the canine nose, we must reflect on our moral responsibility to the world. The natural world is one big community that demands care and respect. Humans are easily detached from nature, creating not only a physical but an emotional disconnect from the earth. By immersion and through reflection on our relationship with the natural world, a land ethic is created. We have chosen to incorporate the use of canines into our efforts, their partnership only furthering our relationship with every species among us on the planet.