Archie and Wink sniff out pest weeds

A young border collie is learning from one of New Zealand’s top dog handling teams, as he puts his nose to work hunting for pest plants across Waitaha/Canterbury.

Archie, the pup in training, has been shadowing Wink – a one-eyed scent detection dog who’s an important part of a regional programme to eradicate the invasive grass spartina (spartina anglica).

Lauren Piket, Archie’s owner and handler, has been teaching her dog in her spare time. She’s a biosecurity officer for Environment Canterbury and will work alongside Archie in the field.

A nose for nuisance plants

Lauren says a big part of her job involves searching for unwanted plants. For Archie, it’s not so much work, but a performative routine of play and reward.

“A lot of our time is spent doing grid searches and walking all types of terrain looking for plants that can be quite difficult to see. Archie’s keen sense of smell will help root out those harder to detect species, enhancing our ability to manage invasive plants.”

The pair have been learning the ropes with Wink and his trainer John Taylor, who work in conjunction with Department of Conservation (DOC) and regional council staff to hunt spartina. John and Wink have been leading the charge since 2018, after a successful field trial demonstrated Wink’s skills for finding the plant.  

Since then, John and Wink have travelled to several areas across the North and South islands, searching for spartina on behalf of councils and DOC.

Archie is also being trained to detect Chilean needle grass (Nassella neesiana). This plant rapidly out-competes other species and is one of the harder pests to detect due to its similarities with other grasses. For humans, it’s easiest to spot during seeding – when it displays a distinctive purple seed. Dogs however, can sniff it out all year round.

Training for the field

Lauren says there is a lot more to it than just finding plants.

“Obedience is key. Archie has to ignore stock and other distractions while also being able to do an emergency stop at a moment’s notice. His training teaches him to ignore base impulses and focus on the job.”

Lauren is working to get Archie certified through DOC’s Conservation Dogs Programme, after which he’ll be one of few dogs trained to find weed species in areas of low density. In such locations, remaining pest plants are few and far between, making detection all the more difficult.

“After an interim test, he’ll then sit another assessment in a year’s time – and will be a fully certified member of the team.

“I originally got Archie as a pet - but given collies are very smart and they love to work, this is an ideal scenario for both of us and a great opportunity to proactively manage pests.”

Learn more

Read more about spartina and Chilean needle grass on our managing plant pests page.