Meet Holly the frog detection dog, one very special canine being trained to help survey and conserve Aotearoa’s precious (and only!) endemic amphibians - our unique frog species - Leiopelma.

The five-year-old Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever (a very intelligent, obedient breed that’s highly trainable due to its strong play drive), is on her way to becoming the country’s first ever frog detection dog.

It is thanks to the vision and mahi of Holly’s owners - the late Emeritus Professor Dr Phil Bishop (a world-renowned amphibian conservationist who died in 2021) and his wife Debbie Bishop - that Holly is on track to graduate from the Department of Conservation’s (DOC) ‘Conservation Dogs Programme’ later this year. Auckland Zoo supported Holly’s training through its Conservation Fund Small Grants programme, so we’re delighted to hear from Debbie that Holly is proving to be an exemplary ‘student’!

Owing to the logistical implications and restrictions of the Covid-years, and more recently storms and floods, most of Holly’s training has taken place in the buildings and grounds of the University of Otago, Zoology Department in Dunedin where Phil worked. “This has been possible owing to the small groups of endemic frogs maintained at the university, which without the ongoing support of the Zoology Department, this training would not have been possible, something I’m hugely grateful for” explains Debbie.

“Initially we introduced Holly to a dummy odour by using small cut pieces of a dog toy called KONG which provided a steppingstone before transitioning to the scent of Archey’s frogs, as well as providing us with a scent to use outside of the University for getting field ready. Following a careful welfare review and approval from the university’s ethics committee, we progressed to placing frogs in closed but ventilated containers of different sizes and materials (e.g., plastic, glass, stainless steel), hidden in different places. These ranged from kitting a room out with planks and pot plants to utilising the university’s garage space or the atrium which has several tree ferns. To make things more challenging, we introduced other distractions like containers with only leaf litter, worms, or feathers – things she’d encounter in the wild. For much of this, I worked alongside student, Tegan Murrell, who used some of this project as part of her MSc thesis, and it was hugely beneficial bouncing ideas off each other.”

Like all animal training programmes, positive reinforcement has been key to Holly’s training. On successfully locating Archey’s frogs, Holly’s indication would be to sit, point with her nose and wait for Debbie, who would then say, ‘yes’ and give her a small food reward, or say, ‘find next’ and Holly would continue searching and finding frogs.

“We humans have a limited understanding of the olfactory powers of dogs, but we do know that their ability to smell and analyse smell is extraordinary, as we see in Holly. “I’m now feeling really confident of Holly’s ability to detect Archey’s frogs in this environment successfully. Our next challenge is to transition her from lab-based detection to field-based detection,” says Debbie.

To date Holly has had two opportunities to go into the field – both at Mahakirau Forest Estate in the Coromandel – home to Archey’s and Hochstetter’s frogs. The first time was in late 2020 with both Debbie and Phil where on the second day, much to their delight, she found an Archey’s frog all on own! The second time, in late November 2022, Holly once again found frogs.

What Debbie did discover is that it took Holly longer to find the frogs in the wild. She explains that the frogs at the university may have a slightly different scent to those in the wild – perhaps because of differences in their diet - so is looking forward to spending more time in the field as conditions allow.

“Throughout her training, Holly has proven to be a fast and willing learner, is very obedient and eager to please and extremely capable of grasping new concepts. She has an amazing personality, is just so good natured and such a pleasure to have as a companion,” says a very proud Debbie.

“To me, she personifies her breed and all that we’re looking for in a conservation frog detection dog. Physically, she has the benefit of a soft mouth, is of a nimble size that’s perfect for the forest environment with its varying terrains, and a double coat to keep her warm.”

To me, she personifies her breed and all that we’re looking for in a conservation frog detection dog. Physically, she has the benefit of a soft mouth, is of a nimble size that’s perfect for the forest environment with its varying terrains, and a double coat to keep her warm

Debbie Bishop

Holly has obtained her interim certification through the DOC Conservation Dogs Programme, which included bird aversion training - mainly focusing on ducks, chicken, seagulls and local birds. This year she also completed her Kiwi Avoidance Training and obtained her Avian Avoidance Attendance Certificate. Both certifications affirm she’s fully obedient, follows all commands and directions, is under Debbie’s full control and won’t cause any harm.

Holly should fully graduate DOC’s Conservation Dogs Programme in the coming months, and next year will be further assessed out in the field, as the second phase to graduating.

For Debbie, a frog detection dog like Holly, offers another important complementary tool in the conservation ‘toolbox’ to seek out these very cryptic endemic frogs.

“It’s an exciting new avenue for assisting frog surveying to improve the distribution data we have for these species and our knowledge of their presence and absence across the country.”

Asked what she thinks Kiwis can do to help ensure a future for precious taonga like endemic frogs, Debbie says: “Preserving the forests of Aotearoa where these endemic frogs live is vital, not only for the frogs but for all the animal and plant species that share and are interdependent on these ecosystems. Key to this is predator control, which has shown to be very beneficial to the survival of frogs and so many other species, so please get involved!”

You can learn more about Auckland Zoo’s efforts for Archey’s frogs here.