Tip, a young hunting dog, takes a goat trail through the damp undergrowth of the New Zealand forest, alert and excited as his nose scans the ground for scent. She suddenly stops to explore an irresistible scent – the sweet, musty aroma of kiwi.
Tip is allowed to breathe in for a moment before a low-level electrical pulse, emitted from a collar, warns him that this bird is off limits. She recoils briefly, the electrical signal enough to form an immediate negative association with the smell.
It’s a controversial method, but when Tip spreads the second kiwi wide – another freeze-dried bird placed a few feet up the track – she’s rewarded with a “good girl” and a smack. She passed the test and will now be certified with her kiwi avoidance training for next year.
Residents arrive one after another, well bundled up against the cold winter morning, in a small patch of bush in Mamaku, near Rotorua. With them are their excitable dogs who quickly overwhelm the birdsong with yelps and barks.
Everyone is here to take part in the training run by conservation group Save the Kiwi, which teaches dogs to avoid kiwis if they encounter them in the wild.
Rama and Erica, who asked that their surnames not be published, want to make sure their dogs never mistake a kiwi for a wallaby – which dogs like to chase – while hiking.
”We have read a lot of articles about kiwi fruit mutilated by dogs, and the [training] is really easy to do,” says Erica. Their two border collies, Wiki and Yomi, are undergoing their second session – the first was six months ago – and, once again, both dogs stay well clear of the kiwi.
Despite conservation efforts over many years to increase the number of kiwifruit populations, their status varies from “in recovery” to “nationally critical”, depending on the species.
Desperate conservation efforts have led to trials of measures such as electric collars, which have raised concerns about the welfare of dogs as much as the kiwi, and their use is banned in some places overseas.
There are about 68,000 kiwis left and 2% of unmanaged kiwis die each year – about 20 per week – according to the Department of Conservation. Of the kiwis that hatch in the wild, 95% are killed before reaching adulthood. The most prolific kiwi killers, after stoats, weasels and ferrets, are dogs. It is difficult to assess exactly how many birds are killed by dogs each year – some owners are unaware or deliberately hide the evidence – but Save the Kiwi estimates it to be around 400.
Kiwis have underdeveloped wing and chest muscles and no sternum, making them particularly vulnerable to dog bites.
“There’s nothing to protect them – they’re basically just two huge drumsticks with a head,” said Blake Cole, a kiwi avoidance trainer with Save the Kiwi.
Cole is one of many trainers across New Zealand running sessions on responsible dog ownership, and avoidance training is just one tool in wider efforts to protect the kiwi, which include predator control, breeding programs, conservation and research.
An integral part of the training model is to use real, already dead kiwis, some of their pungent droppings, and feathers from their nests to pique dogs’ interest. Now the program is turning to new technologies. Cole, a former engineer, has teamed up with megatronics students from the University of Canterbury to create a moving kiwi that will mimic the bird’s distinctive gait and provide an attractive moving target for dogs.
The use of electric collars as a training tool is controversial in New Zealand. Individual dogs may react differently to impulses, with some having a more negative experience than others, says Dr. Kat Littlewood, professor of animal welfare at Massey University.
“It’s much more effective to train with a positive thing than using a negative technique,” she says, adding that muzzles and leashes are a good alternative.
Cole agrees that ideally the dogs would be leashed or completely out of the bush, but if they had to be there, or found their way through the kiwi habitat on their own, he hopes the sessions will help protect the birds.
“It’s about getting the message out that you can’t just let your dog out in the middle of the night for a little while and leave him outside for half an hour if you don’t know what he’s doing. People seem to think they’re just hunting opossums.”
The collar is the most effective tool the group has at this point, he adds. “We do our best with what we have. »
Coaches always use the lowest setting, which is usually enough to create a lasting negative association, Cole says.
The training primarily targets working dogs – those needed for farming and hunting – and is seen as a last resort for pets, with owners encouraged to ensure their dog never encounters a kiwi. But some pet owners are now seeking the sessions as an added precaution.
Nikki and Mike, who declined to give their last name, brought their blue-heeled cattle dog Fletcher for his first session. “We spend all our weekends in the bush and the mountains, and the aversion to kiwifruit is obvious,” says Mike.
“Their natural motivation is to go after a bird, and the kiwi can’t defend itself,” adds Nikki. ”So we have to do our part.”
Hollie Beaumont, also accompanied by her blue heel Freddie, says there are parts of New Zealand that require dogs to have undergone avoidance training before they are allowed entry. For Beaumont, an avid trail runner, it was important to have Freddie properly trained ”with the smell of a real kiwi fruit”.
Ultimately, she says, it’s the responsible thing to do as a dog owner. “It’s a luxury to have a dog, but it’s more of a luxury to have a kiwi.”
– Guardian News and Media