Dogs for Ferret Control

November 2006
Ferrets can be vectors for bovine TB. Scavenging carcasses infects them, so they are good indicators of the presence of TB in the general wildlife population. The Animal Health Board, which is responsible for controlling TB and eradicating it where possible, samples ferret populations and uses the information to fine tune control programmes for possums, ferrets and other vectors.

The AHB has used trapping to try to reduce numbers of ferrets in high-risk areas where ferrets are thought to be a major source of infection and spread of TB.

Robert Andrews has been involved in pest control in Central Otago for many years, starting with rabbits and moving on to trapping possums and then ferrets. Two years ago he became involved with the dog training project. His first dog did not pass the certification process, but the second one has.

You have to have the dog under good control, so you start them young with obedience training and then you use dead ferrets, dragging them round and getting the dog to trail them, says Robert.

Gradually you progress to finding live ones. It's no problem getting the dog to chase things but getting them to locate only ferrets is quite hard. If they are running down the hill and a rabbit runs in front of them they have got to be able to ignore it and carry on looking for ferrets, and that's the most difficult side of it. The only way I have succeeded in doing it is using an electric collar.

During the training process an experienced dog handler from DOC monitored Roberts progress every 6 weeks. For the final certification tests two people set up a course for Robert and his dog to work through.

They set trails that the dog had to find, and they put out boxes with different animals in them and the dog had to pick up which one the ferret was in and ignore the cat or the possums and so on. Then they hid four live ferrets in an area and we had to hunt through it and see how many we could find in a certain time, says Robert.

Up until now there hasn't been a lot of hunting, it's all been training, but now they are starting to put the dogs out in the field and the next six to eight months is going to show how well the dogs are going to work in practice.

When he goes to hunt an area Robert looks at the wind and the country to see where the rabbits are because that's where the ferrets are going to be. They tend to live amongst rocks or rabbit holes, curled up in the tussock, and at this time of year they have young ones in dens down a rabbit hole. Obviously they have to have food, water and shelter, says Robert.

It is up in the air exactly how well the system is going to work. The dogs aren't infallible, in some situations they will find ferrets and other situations they won't. You have to spend a lot of time with your dog and know what it is telling you when it starts indicating, he says.

Robert expects that dog handlers will be doing about four days a month for the next two or three months to evaluate how well the dogs go in real situations.