While most of our dogs' jobs include lounging on the sofa, begging for treats, and putting up with too many snuggles, some dogs have actual jobs. Service dogs, K9 dogs, search and rescue dogs, the list of dogs with cool jobs goes on. Have you ever heard of a conservation dog doing important anti-poaching work? We hadn't either, until we met Puma!
We sat down (virtually, on opposite sides of the world), with Puma and his owner James to find out more about what this incredible dog does.
Wilderdog: Hi James! Thanks for chatting with us. So, we know Puma is a 'conservation dog'. Can you tell us what exactly that means?
James, Puma's Handler: Puma started out his career as a multipurpose patrol K9. This means he was trained in detection (sniffing out contraband such as rhino horn or lion bones), man trailing (tracking), and the apprehension of a suspect (bite work).
It became clear that whilst Puma was very capable at all of those tasks, he particularly excelled at detection of wildlife contraband. So the idea was born, to teach Puma not only how to track and catch poachers, but also how to track different endangered species whilst they were alive, so that they could be monitored for research and security purposes.
We started out with pangolin tracking and had some success in this regard in both Namibia and South Africa. Originally it was deemed unwise to publicise that dogs could be used to find pangolins, but the African Pangolin Working Group has since gone public with their programme so I guess the cat (or dog) is out of the bag now!
[W: A pangolin, you might ask? This is a pangolin -
Pangolins are the most trafficked mammal in the world for their meat and scales. The various species are all classified as either critically endangered, endangered, or vulnerable.]
W: When you are called to assist with a poaching incident, how does Puma help?
J: Spoor (or sign) will be located by the night patrol teams and then Puma is able to pick up the poacher(s)' scent and pursue them.
This is obviously very dangerous, and so my focus is not just on watching for poachers, but also ensuring Puma is safe. If the poachers surrender they are arrested, if they do not, then Puma may be called upon to catch the suspect and help us apprehend them.
In practice, on a rhino reserve anyone who doesn't surrender is likely armed with a firearm. People often think of their K9 as the ultimate tool to capture and disarm the bad guy, but in reality, releasing a dog to bite an armed suspect is a very easy way to lose a dog so the decision is reserved for very specific circumstances and never taken lightly.
While we have run numerous training scenarios for this kind of tragic event, our excellent ranger teams have successfully kept poachers away from our dogs, and an animal has not been lost to poaching on this reserve in three years.
W: How did Puma train to become a conservation dog?
J: Puma was originally bred and trained by a private anti-poaching company in South Africa. He had been sold to a reserve, but they returned him when the previous handler couldn't work with him. There were allegations of abuse and lots of ugliness that I won't go into.
But the result was that Puma was very nervous, anxious, and sensitive, but overall eager to please. This is when I started working with him. We went right back to basics, from normal obedience work (sit, stay, down etc) right through to locating chunks of bone or warthog ivory that my colleagues would hide in drawers, bags, boxes and sometimes pockets.
One of the most important things when it comes to training for this kind of work is to remain consistent with commands and to always start and finish on a high note. So there was always lots of playtime and ball games.
Unfortunately, it is a common practice for poachers to leave poisoned meat and dog treats behind them to slow down tracking teams, so Puma had to be trained solely on ball rewards, rather than food rewards. I also carry activated charcoal and a special K9 med kit with me when we go out in the field in case of poisoning.
When I taught Puma to locate wildlife, I used the 'forum method' so that he would learn independence and passive indications. This is to reduce the genetically learned hunting instinct in him to physically interact with the thing he is pursuing.
W: Tell us about Puma's most exciting day in the office (in the field).
J: I don't know about most exciting, that's a tough question. We've had a few close calls in the bush, either from people taking pot shots, or from errant wild animals.
On one particular occasion, we responded to a late night call out about some suspicious movement that had set off some sensors. Puma picked up the scent and indicated to me that he was on the trail of some kind of predator but I had never seen this specific indication before.
As we moved through the bush, Puma gave a proximity alert by lifting his head high and pointing. In the bushes ahead of us was not one, but two honey badgers out foraging. Honey badgers are notoriously violent and can be very aggressive when threatened. To be standing just a few metres from two of them was equally awe inspiring and terrifying. Puma and I backed away from the wild animals as they split up and moved around us. It was a tense encounter, but in reality it probably only lasted a few seconds. Since then we have been nearly crushed by rhinos thundering through the bush (who were just as surprised and scared to see us as we were to see them), and had some really exciting success locating pangolin burrows as part of a population density survey.
W: What does an average day look like for Puma?
J: Depending on the seasons and weather, at the moment a typical day starts with a very early breakfast, then some early morning training or wildlife tracking, depending on operational requirements. We come back in when the sun starts to get too intense and Puma will rest a while. Then we will often play some detection games around the house or in the yard to keep his mind occupied during the heat of the day. In the afternoons we go out again for some quick exercise or training, and then Puma has his dinner.
We are then on standby throughout the night in case of a poaching incident or other emergency that may require Puma or myself to respond. Gastric torsion is no joke, and deep chested breeds like Weimaraners are particularly susceptible, so Puma has at least an hour set aside on either side of his meals with no exercise, and no work to reduce the risk.
W: Are you both Puma's handler and owner? How does that work?
J: I am Puma's handler, and therefore he contractually cannot be separated from me. He was purchased by the NGO Canines for Africa to get him out of the situation he was in previously. We operate together on the condition that I would work with him pursuing conservation objectives around the continent.
W: How did you become a conservation dog handler?
J: It is quite a long story! In 2018 I was walking coast to coast across Africa (Namibia to Mozambique), but I unfortunately broke my tibia mid-trip. My travel buddy and I kept going, managing to cross the rest of the Kalahari on crutches before we decided to paddle the Limpopo river for the last stretch. Unfortunately the river ran dry and our expedition was forced to be over. We had some extra time to kill at the end of the trip, and ended up staying with a South African anti-poaching unit. Puma and I became instantly inseparable. When it was time to go back to the UK, I flew home, sorted out my affairs and took a job offer in South Africa 45 days later. Since then Puma and I have fulfilled contracts on several reserves in two countries protecting lions, elephants, rhinos, pangolins and a wide variety of plains game.
W: Is Puma your first conservation dog?
J: Yes Puma is my first conservation dog, although my grandfather bred German Shepherds for the police in the UK and I had some limited experiences with military working dogs from my time in the Army. I have also worked with and trained a number of other working dogs for organisations across Africa to fulfill the same kind of role as Puma.
W: Are there many conservation dogs around Africa doing similar work?
J: There are loads of canines working across the world to protect endangered species. In fact, Puma's brother is currently working in India protecting tigers and Asian pangolins!
W: Tell us a bit about CRASH and how they help support Puma.
J: As I mentioned before, Canines for Africa purchased Puma for me, but CRASH provides much needed financial support monthly to keep Puma and I in the field. This has become particularly vital since COVID hit, and funding for African reserves has dried up. For $65 a month, CRASH provides all of Puma's food and medical requirements so that we can continue our work.
CRASH is a 501(c)3 non-profit organisation dedicated to absolute transparency and providing support to conservation projects. CRASH is currently establishing a Namibian branch to build a wildlife rehabilitation centre. I am on the board of CRASH Namibia and when my obligations here are fulfilled, and COVID permitting, Puma and I will be heading over to Namibia to help get things set up and make sure the necessary security infrastructure is in place.
W: When Puma is not hard at work, what does he like to do for fun?
J: As much as Puma genuinely loves his work (he taps his toes with excitement before we go out every morning) it is vital that working dogs get some down time to just goof around and just be dogs!
Puma has an exceptionally high drive and just loves to play with his toys. We play fetch, but I also hide toys in fun and unusual places so he can practice using his incredible nose to sniff them out. Sometimes we go over to the watering holes and once I've checked for wildlife, Puma loves to splash around and swim in the dirty water - although he doesn't like bath time so much!
Puma is also very sociable and has a great time running around playing with other dogs. Whenever possible, I like to take him down to visit some of his four legged friends in Johannesburg.
Thanks for chatting with us James and Puma!
As with many non-profits, COVID-19 has reduced CRASH's fundraising capabilities quite a lot. They are hosting a virtual "Pups Against Poaching" fundraiser next week, and you can learn more about this incredible organization here - https://www.crashwildlife.org/.