Selective breeding of detector dogs moves onto global scene

Australia leads the world in breeding detector dogs for Customs, quarantine and police services, thanks to a selective breeding program developed by the Australian Customs Service in Melbourne.

Now the organisation is taking the lead in establishing a global gene bank, in order to keep the gene pool for these specialised working dogs as diverse as possible, and has assisted in setting up other selective breeding programs in the US and China.

Like organisations training assistance dogs, Customs has long found it difficult to secure enough suitable animals, the manager of the national breeding and development centre, John Vandeloo told The Veterinarian.

It isn’t just an Australian problem. Organisations using detector dogs around the world have the same problem, but it was Australia which led the way in finding the answer – breed what you need.

“In Australia alone, there are 400 working detector dogs. They work in Customs, AQUIS, Federal police, the Army and Air Force, all state and territory police services, some state fire services and some correctional institutions. Multiply that by the countries which use detector dogs and globally, it’s a problem sourcing good dogs,” Vandeloo says.

Customs had some dogs from Guide Dogs Australia, but most came from private breeders or animal rescue centres. But with such dogs, there was no way of knowing how they would perform until after expensive training, ($40-50,000 for a three month training course), and the failure rate of dogs entering training was high. In the mid 1990s, only about 1 in 10 completed the training to work successfully in the demanding task of sniffing out drugs or explosives. Even with dogs that completed their training, there was uncertainty how long they would be able to work.

“Generally, in less than four years we would find they were failing because of skeletal problems, or they had deep-seated temperamental problems.”

Customs pup in training

A Customs puppy undergoing training

Now, after 12 years of selective breeding of 1300 dogs , more than seven out of 10 complete the training and they can work for almost eight years.

Three and a half years’ research by a PhD student in qualitative genetics at Melbourne University, now Dr, Kath Champness, led to the selective breeding program being set up in Melbourne under the control of Vandeloo and Champness.

Dr Champness’ “pathfinder study”, as Vandeloo describes it, was a world first in attempting to identify the key attributes required by a successful detector dog. The results were published in an article in New Scientist in 1997 and were written up in Time magazine. Dr Champness not only identified the attributed, but pinpointed the importance of the dog to focus attention on the task in hand, and to sustain that focus over hours without result.

Customs’ original breeding stock came from Guide Dogs Australia, who also have their own breeding program While assistance dogs are usually labrador/retriever/golden retriever-cross, Customs also looked at other traditional working dogs such as german shepherds and beagles, before settling on labrador/retriever-cross.

“German shepherds and beagles have a low threshold for rewards and are good in areas where there are high numbers of targets, such as fruit or food items in incoming passenger luggage,” Vandeloo says.

“But a drug or explosive detector dog will work at screening thousands of passengers for a very low number of targets, so we needed a dog that would work long and hard for weeks at a time before finding a target.”

However, the dog also needs to be non-threatening to passengers being screened at airports and ports, and again, the labrador-cross fits the bill.

He predicts drug and explosive detector dogs are unlikely to be replaced by hand-held detection equipment in the foreseeable future.

“The dog is a marvellous biological detector system, far better than we can ever be. Humans are the weak link in the [detection] chain. They have enormous odour vocabularies – they can distinguish minute differences such as drug chemicals, where they came from, how they were transported, for example, if they were backpacked on an Alpaca donkey.”

The need to keep the dogs’ odour vocabulary as wide as possible poses challenges in training them, since they are rewarded for finding the target. The dog is likely to concentrate on the odours it knows will bring the reward, so Vandeloo says it is actually preferable to undertrain them, so as not to unwittingly reduce their vocabulary.

Breeding or training: getting the whole dog

The initial group of labrador-retriever cross puppies that displayed the sought-after traits of courage, hunting skills, focus and temperament (see list below), were then the focus of a study on the effect of their environment on their ability to be trained to detect.

Fifty-four eight-week-old puppies were divided into three groups, plus a control group. Two of the groups were sent to foster homes for socialisation and loving care. Food, equipment and veterinary support were supplied to the foster families by Customs. The first group also enjoyed regular development exercise times with Customs dog handlers.

The third group of puppies were kept in kennels, where they gained some socialisation, but no personal handling, attention or developmental exercises.

When the pups were old enough to begin formal training at about 12 months, those in groups one and three had developed strong hunting skills, while those in group two were well socialised, but their hunting skills were under developed. The pups from group three, who had grown up in the kennels, showed good hunting ability, but were less accustomed to interaction with humans than the two fostered groups.

Foster care with a loving family or single adult, plus the developmental exercises in the first year of life, proved the optimum environment.

“We need a whole dog,” Vandeloo says. “It needs to be familiar with the sights and sounds and smells of suburbia, but have those Customs exercises to help it express its hunting skills.”

There has been international interest in Custom’s breeding program, and in the resulting global gene bank. Vandeloo says many countries have made approaches to become part of the gene pool, and two more countries in Southeast Asia are likely to join in the next few years.

However, although this is brings international kudos to Australia, he urges caution, warning against the risk of “dismantling the whole program” if the fresh stock is not thoroughly tested and proved safe first.

“Of the 1300 dogs we have bred, not one has been diagnosed with progressive retinal atrophy (PRA), or a significant structural problem,” he says proudly.

“Customs’ gene pool is quite special. We are the guardians of it as a national asset, and now it’s moving into the international sphere.”

Characteristics of a good detector dog

Vandeloo lists the key attributes he and Champness recognised as creating a good working and breeding dog:

  • Bold and brave: to go into daunting environments such as hot, smelly engine rooms of ships, or being dropped from a helicopter onto the deck of a ship

  • Athletic: elite dogs are the equivalent of Olympic athletes; they need to be at the top of their game, physically and mentally

  • Strong hunting instinct to find target

  • Capable of focusing on the task of searching for drugs, despite distractions

  • Able to persevere and maintain focus for hours at a time

  • Prepared to work long and hard for reward of praise or a game

  • Stamina to keep sniffing at the taxing rate of around 300 times per minute

  • Even temperament

©Sue Cartledge

« Back to writing examples