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Engaging a detection dog team

The group is working on preparing guidelines for detection dogs. In the meantime, here are some considerations for engaging a detection dog team.

When might a detection dog-handler team be useful?

Detection dogs can be a valuable tool in ecological surveying, often enabling improved search efficiency and detection rates over traditional survey methods. See 'About Ecology Detection Dogs' for more information on how dogs are being utilised in Britain and Ireland.  


The use of detection dogs for wildlife surveys in Britain and Ireland is a relatively new field and is inherently risky in terms of both potential effects on wildlife and with regard to the quality of the results obtained. It is imperative that experienced and well-trained dog and handler teams only are used and these required skills can take years to develop. It is therefore important for the safety of the handler, the dog, and for wildlife, as well as for the quality of the work, that anyone seeking to engage dog and handler teams on a project should ask for evidence of how these teams meet the required level of competence to carry out the work. 

At a minimum, a dog-handler team should follow CIEEM’s code of professional conduct or a similar statement relating to professional standards and responsible conduct. The Working Group is in the process of developing an accreditation scheme for professional ecology detection dog teams. The team should also have evidence of formal training and testing to high standards in relation to the target scent. An example is a rigorous method for testing the efficiency of teams in relation to Great Crested Newt searches (see Resources page).  When considering engaging a dog-handler team, ask for evidence of testing. Appropriate licences are required from Natural England, Natural Resources Wales, Scottish Natural Heritage, Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) or National Parks and Wildlife Service of the Republic of Ireland for working with protected species. 

How do I go about finding a dog-handler team?

Photo Credit: Kryus

When considering employing a dog-handler team for your surveys, check if there is a dog trained to find your species. Training and accrediting a dog-handler team for a new species/target scent takes many months. If there is not already a trained dog for the scent you wish to work with, contact dog-handler teams to find out if there is a handler willing to train a dog for that species. 

It is important to consult a dog handler at the early stages of planning a project and prior to submitting pricing or study design.

What information does a professional dog-handler need?

To enable a dog handler team to get the best results, it is important that the handler is intrinsically involved in the design of the study and reporting of results. The data collection needs and the scope of the project need to be determined to consider appropriate techniques. Information to consider includes:

  • Species/target scent

  • Habitat conditions – terrain and vegetation on site

  • Potential seasonality

  • Type and number of samples needed

  • Study duration

  • Size of search area

Safety Considerations

When thinking of engaging a dog-handler team, it is important to consider the suitability of the site for a dog. Considerations should include:


  • Presence of protected species or sites, and/or other important wildlife potentially vulnerable to disturbance by dogs

  • Nature of the ground – boggy ground, disused mine shafts, UXO and any conditions that may be hazardous for a dog or human

  • Potential for the presence of dangerous substances e.g. asbestos, contaminated land

  • Potential for the presence of flora or fauna that may cause harm to a dog e.g. adders, toxic plants

  • Potential for the presence of wildlife or livestock that may be stressed by the presence of a dog


It is important to inform the handler of any potential hazards that may impede the search ability or risk the safety of the dog and that a full risk assessment should be developed with the dog handler for every project.

Understanding how a dog-handler team works

An reliable detection dog survey is dependent upon dog-handler training and relationship, a robust study design and various canine attributes including olfactory ability, physical structure, energy level, personality and social traits (DeMatteo et al., 2019). 


The following factors affect the ability of a dog to detect a scent:

  • Terrain features

  • Wind direction and speed

  • Ambient temperatures

  • Relative humidity

  • Longevity of target odour

Atkins - Detection dog (Arnie) indicatin

Photo Credit: Atkins

Atkins GCN detection dog search (Arnie).

Photo Credit: Atkins


Weather conditions affect how a scent disperses through the air (Reed et al., 2011), the molecular composition and longevity of the target scent (Paula et al., 2011; Reed et al., 2011) and the nasal tissue dryness of the dog (Paula et al., 2011). A detection dog-handler will need to adjust the survey schedule according to weather conditions. 

Search methodology

When designing the search pattern, a dog-handler will take into account the terrain and vegetation structure, wind direction and the nature of target odour.  

Unlike traditional methods, it is not possible to define a transect width with a detection dog since a dog detects odours on air currents. A detection dog expands the area covered and will often cover 4-5 times the distance of the straight line transect (DeMatteo et al., 2019). This should be accounted for when estimating the time a transect may take a dog-handler team

How to enable a dog-handler team to get the best results

The handler is an important part of the team. They interpret the dog’s responses to the scent and read changes in the environment (such as wind direction) to guide the dog. It is important that a handler is not distracted whilst carrying out the survey. 


A handler may need to acclimatize a dog to the site before beginning the surveys. They may need to visit multiple times and adjust the time spent on site on a particular day according to weather conditions.

References and sources of further information

DeMatteo, K.E., Davenport, B. & Wilson, L.E. (2019) Back to basics with conservation detection dogs: fundamentals for success. Wildlife Biology doi: 10.2981/wlb.00584

Gorman, L. & Nisbet, S. (2020) Sniffing out great crested newts. Mineral Planning, April 2020, 188: 14-15


Paula, J. Leal, M.C., Silva, M.J., Mascarenhas, R., Costa, H. and Mascarenhas, M. (2011). Dogs as a tool to improve bird-strike mortality estimates at wind farms. Journal for Nature Conservation, 19: 202-208


Reed, S.E, Bidlack, A., Hurt, A.. Getz, W. (2011) Detection Distance and Environmental Factors in Conservation Detection Dog Surveys. Journal of Wildlife Management, 75(1), 243-251 doi: 10.1002/jwmg.8. 


Stanhope, K. (2015) Ecological Monitoring using Wildlife Detection Dogs: Bat Carcass Searches at the Wanlip Wind Turbine. CIEEM In Practice – Bulletin of the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management, 88:30-32


Stanhope, K. & Sloan, V. (2019) Proposed Method for testing and accreditation of Great Crested Newt Detection Dogs. CIEEM In Practice – Bulletin of the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management, September 2019, 105: 36-40


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