In March 2020, the expansion of the DNPW/CLZ K9 Unit with two new working dogs – Kalo and Hammer began. Over the last four months Invictus K9 has been training both new dogs as well as a new handler and kennel keeper. The original handlers and remaining dog have also been simultaneously undergoing refresher training in order to upgrade and reinforce their current skills whilst also introducing new techniques to be utilised during operations.
Detection is one of the core skills developed in the dogs early on with both Kalo and Hammer having successfully imprinted on the scent of firearms, ammunition, ivory, pangolin scale, rhino horn, bushmeat and skins. This is done through exposure to the items in question then using positive reinforcement when the dog successfully indicates on the scent. Throughout training the dogs were also exposed to different environments in order to help strengthen their detection skills and also train them to ignore physical distractions such as loud noises and new people. Once the dogs had learned to detect and indicate on a scent without a visual stimulus baggage searches were also conducted to imitate those held during vehicle check points. Vehicle check points are important in tackling the illegal wildlife trade as they aid in intercepting and disrupting trafficking channels. Both Kalo and Hammer are now able to conduct open area searches, building searches, vehicle check points and baggage searches with ease and great enthusiasm.
In the Lower Zambezi, the dogs experience particularly high temperature levels making them susceptible to heat stress which has detrimental effects to their health and ability to perform. In order to mitigate this issue, part of the training program has involved teaching handler’s the dangers of heat stress for the dogs and how to effectively manage their dog’s temperature. This has been achieved through a number of walks and small-scale operations in high temperature environments. These activities have also worked to help the dogs acclimatise to the weather conditions of the Lower Zambezi and increase their overall fitness levels. At the end of June, the unit made the 14km walk up Mt. Chilapira showcasing the endurance of both the dogs and handlers and their ability to cope with heat and exertion.
It is also imperative to familiarise the new dogs with the different modes of transport they will encounter when on operations such as vehicles, boats and aircrafts. These modes of transport were incorporated into training exercises in order to gradually expose the dogs and give the trainer’s time to monitor their reactions closely. Both Kalo and Hammer quickly overcame any initial apprehension to new modes of transport and also didn’t display any signs of motion sickness which will be incredibly beneficial in the field.
An unusual aspect of training came in the form of two chickens. When conducting vehicle searches and village sweeps the dogs regularly encounter livestock, which often distracts them from the task at hand. Two chickens were procured and kept in the kennel area in order for the dogs to become accustomed to their scent, sounds and movements. During training the three canines initially showed a slight interest in the chickens particularly when they made sudden movements or loud noises, however they quickly learned to focus solely on detection and are now able to conduct tasks without allowing the chickens to distract them. When out on operations this element of training will be incredibly useful in helping streamline vehicle searches and village sweeps as the dogs should ignore all forms of domesticated livestock.
With the advanced training course now complete we look forward to seeing how the unit will operate in the field and what further impact they will have on CLZ’s efforts to combat poaching and illegal wildlife trade.
CLZ extends gratitude to IUCN Save Our Species co-funded by European Union, International Elephant Foundation and The Berry Family Trust, Lion Recovery Fund and Adrian Scripps, for funding the K9 Expansion Training Course.
This publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union through IUCN Save Our Species. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Conservation Lower Zambezi and do not necessarily reflect the views of IUCN or the European Union.