Boston, Mass., Sept. 13, 2018 âÂ Thereâs a new member of the Zoo New England team: Koda the Australian shepherd mix. Koda, affectionately known as the Zooâs âTurtle Dog,â is being trained to assist staff in locating turtles in their native habitat as part of vital conservation work to protect and bolster regionally threatened populations of turtles, particularly the locally rare eastern box turtle.
Zoo New Englandâs Grassroots Wildlife ConservationÂ is committed to protecting, restoring and enhancing wild populations of rare and declining species here in Massachusetts including eastern box turtles, Blandingâs turtles, marbled salamanders, eastern spadefoot toads, bridle shiners and New England blazing stars.
Staff currently depends on imprecise visual surveys to locate box turtles in dense woodlands. With their well camouflaged shells, human observers might step right next to a hiding box turtle without ever finding it. A dog, however, can use its highly developed sense of smell to pinpoint the turtles much more quickly and effectively. Dogs can be trained to distinguish between different species of turtles and possibly even males and females of one species. And thatâs where Koda, the six-month-old Australian shepherd mix comes in. With more than 220 million olfactory receptors in its nose, a dogâs sense of smell is over 1,000 times greater than that of humans, making dogs like Koda a researcherâs best friend.
âOnce Koda completes her training and is ready for the field, she will be an invaluable team member as she will assist us in more quickly and accurately locating turtles that we are working so hard to protect, â said Dr. Bryan Windmiller, Zoo New England Director of Conservation.
Kodaâs trainer, Zoo New England Assistant Curator Chris Bartos, is no stranger to this line of work. Bartos trained Finn, the first ever scat (feces) detection dog at theÂ Cheetah Conservation FundÂ (CCF) in Namibia. Finn currently works at the Fundâs headquarters helping them track cheetahs to define individual cheetah movements and territories. Unlike Finn, who moved to Namibia following his training with Bartos, Koda will train, live and work right here in Massachusetts. Bartos hopes the skills and training techniques she used to teach Finn will be as successful with Koda, who, like Finn, was also adopted from Mid-Atlantic Border Collie Rescue in Chestertown, Maryland.
âKoda was selected out of a litter of nine pups mainly based on her curiosity, playfulness and boldness,â says Bartos. âShe was one of the first to try new things and explore new places. Although a puppy is always a gamble, she showed enough positive qualities to make her a good candidate for training.â
Her primary training is focusing on the basics, particularly building a solid recall. âKoda will be working off lead out in the field, so she has to be trained to come when called despite distractions,â says Bartos. âAs we take her for walks, she will learn to range out away from her handler, but come back as soon as sheâs called. She has to be confident enough to explore on her own, while at the same time being responsive.â
Another important part of Kodaâs training is play. âTo us, her job will be searching for turtles. But in her mind, sheâs looking for treats or her toy, and her reward is an enthusiastic play session with her trainer after she successfully locates a turtle,â says Bartos.
As Koda is still quite young, she likely will not be assisting in the field until next spring or summer. Right now, sheâs maturing and learning basic skills. Koda will also be a frequent visitor at Franklin Park Zoo, going on walks through the zoo several days a week in between her training and play sessions. Itâs likely that a few lucky guests may have the chance to spot the small brown pup wearing her bright âTurtle Dogâ vest.
Koda is one more asset in Zoo New Englandâs efforts to save rare and endangered species from extinction.