The Conservation Conversation

The Pawsome Heroes Saving Our Birds


Fin Buchanan didn’t exactly jump at the chance to train a conservation dog after the death of a much-loved dog he’d used for possum trapping.

“This guy said to me, ‘I’ve got this weep up,’’ says Fin.

“I said, ‘No, mate. I’m a big guy and I want to stick with big dogs’. But he said, ‘These are small dogs with big hearts.’”

The wee pup was Jak, a border terrier cross.Fin was so bowled over by Jak’s abilities that he now leads the pest detection team of the Department of Conservation’s Conservation Dogs Programme.

“After I took Jak on, it didn’t take me long to realise how valuable and important dogs are to conservation work,” says Fin.

“All the other detection tools we’ve got rely on convincing the pest to interact with the tool, but that’s a disadvantage if you’re dealing with a wily character like a stoat. Dogs use scent to sniff out predators, so there’s no place to hide.”

Saving our forests

DOC now has a crack team of specially-trained conservation dogs battling for the future of the nation’s wildlife.

Fifty-five dogs find protected species such as kākāpō, kiwi, pāteke, takahē and the whio/ blue duck, while 25 sniff out pests such as rats, rabbits, stoats and the dastardly possum.


New Zealand was the first country in the world to enlist dogs in the conservation battle. In the 1890s, Richard Henry,caretaker of New Zealand’s first wildlife sanctuary, used his trusty pooch to help him transfer more than 700 kākāpō and kiwi from the mainland to islands in Fiordland.

The Conservation Dogs Programme is a world leader, with our dogs combatting pests around the globe.

Kiwibank is now giving DOC even more canine firepower by funding the team to take on two more dog handlers. It’s part of Kiwibank’s partnership with DOC and Predator Free New Zealand to help the country meet its goal of eradicating predators by 2050.

Rat race

As well as being environmentally friendly,conservation dogs bring huge savings in money and time.

In 2008, for example, pest controllers spent several weeks searching a pest-free island in the Hauraki Gulf after its manager found signs of a rat. They had no luck, but it took Jak less than two hours to discover the rat under a pile of fence posts.

Other triumphs for conservation dogs have included detecting a rat living in the firewall of a van going onto a barge travelling to a pest-free island, and discovering a rat hunkered down by fuel tanks in a water taxi on its way to Ulva Island, near Stewart Island.

Jak died recently, but Fin and his wife,Carol Nanning, also a qualified dog handler, continue to fight on the frontlines of New Zealand’s forests with Jak’s son, Pai, and daughter, Piri.

“You’d be blown away by the bond between Conservation Dogs and their handlers,” says Fin.

“Conservation Dogs are an essential tool in New Zealand’s pest eradication toolbox, but for us they’re also part of the family.”

The Conservation Dogs and their talented handlers are active all over New Zealand. You might be lucky enough to meet them at wharfs, ferry terminals, island and mainland sanctuaries, in the national parks or perhaps even at your local Kiwibank branch so keep an eye out when you're exploring our backyard!

Want to find out more? Stay up to date with the programme by visiting the Dog Programme section on DOC's website or check out Kiwibank’s social media channels.