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Dog trainer has a close eye on those pesky stoats

A dog whisperer’s “special bond” with one of her seven hounds has led to a new business opportunity that could have conservation benefits across the region.

Pip DellaBarca – a qualified veterinary nurse, puppy school teacher, and dog trainer based in Carterton – has been training her 15-month-old lurcher Jet to locate stoats – an animal in the mustelid family – by their scent.

Initially, DellaBarca trained Jet for goat baling – when the dog rounds up pest goats – to support her son, Mario, a professional hunter.

When Jet became her dog, she quickly realised goat baling might not be the most practical option: “Why do I want to do goats? I don’t have a gun!’.”

Chatting to her friend of nearly 40 years, Celia Wade-Brown, a local Green list MP and keen mustelid trapper on her property in Wairarapa, DellaBarca changed tack to stoats.

“I thought I’d made a boo-boo, though,” DellaBarca said, “Because ‘goat’ and ‘stoat’ sound so similar.”

Fortunately, Jet took to the new scent straightaway: “One day I stuck a piece of goat out in the garden, and a piece of stoat about three metres away. She found the goat straightaway but just ignored it, and then went back for the stoat. She totally got it.”

DellaBarca’s has trained Jet to “indicate” for stoat, meaning she doesn’t catch the stoat, but instead locates and then sits by the scent of the animal.

Trappers can then use this “indication” to lay traps.

It’s an approach DellaBarca and Wade-Brown think could be highly effective in settings where stoats and other mustelids undermine conservation efforts.

According to the Department of Conservation [DOC], the impact of stoat predation on “the survival of many of New Zealand’s bird species cannot be underestimated”.

Introduced in the 1870s along with weasels and ferrets to control the pest rabbit population, stoats have been implicated in the extinction of the South Island subspecies of bush wren, the laughing owl and New Zealand thrush.

Wade-Brown, who has over 180 traps across her Wairarapa property, has caught 71 mustelids this year alone, and more than 200 since she moved to back to Wairarapa in [year].

As well as indicating where stoats are, and supporting Predator Free 2050 groups across the region, dogs like Jet can also provide “proof of absence”, Wade-Brown said.

“Say you want to bring back whio [blue duck] to an area – you need to show that there aren’t stoats around. You’ve got to prove that, and proving something’s not there is quite difficult.”

DellaBarca is looking forward to the opportunity to train more dogs to indicate for stoats through her business, Predator Dog Control, and believes any dog with a “strong prey drive and good work ethic” could make a good candidate.

“In reality, all dogs need a job,” she said.

“Jet is a really satisfied little dog, and content, because she’s got a job to do.”

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