Conservation dog at Point Burn
Image: Sabine Bernert ©


This programme uses highly trained dogs and handlers for conservation work with protected species. Dogs pose a serious risk to protected species if they are not trained and handled correctly.

Well trained dog-handler teams have been successfully used for conservation for more than 40 years. New Zealand was the first country to use dogs to benefit conservation as far back as the 1890s.

Today, conservation dogs are used all over New Zealand, for example:

  • helping monitor kiwi and pāteke in Northland
  • protecting the Hauraki Gulf islands from introduced pests
  • helping monitor kiwi, whio and kea on the West Coast.

The dog-handler teams are trained to sniff out either:

  • protected species (mainly birds) so they can be banded, monitored and/or moved to another place, or
  • pest species (eg rodents, stoats, Argentine ants, weeds) that would destroy our native wildlife in pest-free areas.

Certain dog breeds are more suited for this work – pointers are often used to find protected species, while terriers are usually used to find pests.

International recognition

Globally, New Zealand is considered a leader in pest eradication programmes. Conservation dogs are a key tool in these programmes. We have helped Australia use conservation dogs to find feral cats and rodents, and have supplied dogs to Japan to find mongooses.

National standards

There are national standards and protocols for all conservation dogs and their handlers whether they:

  • work on DOC-administered land
  • work on private land where a DOC permit is required to handle protected species, or 
  • are looking for pests in areas where there are protected species.

Programme requirements

To train a safe and successful dog, handlers must have:

  • experience of working with the target protected or pest species
  • dog-handling and training experience
  • time and opportunity – it takes around 18 months of daily training to certify a handler and their dog. Once certified they will still need to train several times a week for the duration of the dog’s working life (up to 10 years).

Programme training

The major steps to becoming a fully certified dog/handler team are:

  • handler application
  • handler selection interview
  • interim certificate assessment for handler and dog (tested for obedience and control, issued for 6 months before they must be tested for full certification)
  • full certificate assessment for handler and dog (tested again for obedience and control along with hunting/detection ability, issued for 3 years then re-tested)

All dogs and handlers must have an interim certificate before training can commence on protected species, or in the presence of protected species. Once trained and certified, the dogs and handlers require regular ongoing work to maintain the appropriate level of competency.

Support is available to handlers throughout the process, including advice on dog selection and training, equipment, mentoring and annual handler workshops.

For further information, contact:

Kiwibank partnership

Kiwibank has joined forces with DOC to resource the Conservation Dogs Programme. DOC will be able to pilot New Zealand’s first specialist conservation dog unit, with two full-time dog handlers. 

Stories about conservation dogs

Other dog training

Avian awareness and avoidance training for dogs and their owners – teaches dogs to avoid ground-dwelling native birds

Back to top