Conservation dog at Point Burn
Image: Sabine Bernert | ©


This programme uses highly trained dogs and their handlers to detect New Zealand’s protected species or unwanted pests.

The temperament of the dog and early-stage training is critical in ensuring the dog is safe and efficient. It is highly recommended that applicants are accepted into the programme before obtaining a dog.


Well trained dog-handler teams have successfully been 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:

  • protecting the Hauraki Gulf and other pest-free islands from introduced pests
  • helping monitor kiwi and whio/blue duck on the West Coast.

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

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

Certain dog breeds are more suited for this work – indicators (setters and pointers) are often used to find protected species, while terriers are usually used to find pests. Dogs can pose a serious risk to protected species if they are not trained and handled correctly. 

Kiwibank Partnership

From 2016 to 2022, Kiwibank joined forces with DOC to support the Conservation Dogs Programme. In its first year, the partnership funded two full-time dog-handlers and an advocacy programme.

By the end of its final year, the partnership added four permanent full-time dog handlers, one full-time Senior Advisor, Species Detection Dogs, and recruited some puppies which strengthened our biosecurity programme via enhanced quarantine and surveillance of our pest-free islands and high-risk biodiversity locations.

The investment by Kiwibank streamlined and enhanced the programme management of the Conservations Dogs Programme. Kiwibank’s funding also helped support the transition of the programme from its pilot phase to a stronger, more strategic footing. It significantly boosted the advocacy programme, leading to greater awareness and protection of our pest-free islands and predator-free sanctuaries.

Find out more.

International leaders

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.

Dog-handler teams

A dog-handler team is certified to detect either protected species or unwanted pests. It takes around 18 months of daily training to become certified. 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). To train a safe and successful dog, handlers must have experience of working with the target protected or pest species and dog-handling and training experience.

National standards and protocols exist 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. 

Find out more about the programme processes and operating procedures

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.

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