The health of working dogs in conservation in Africa

student projects
animal behaviour and welfare
human animal relationship

Nicola Earnshaw

Neil Anderson

Jill MacKay and Megan Parker


July 18, 2023

Introduction Dogs are increasingly being employed for conservation purposes worldwide. In Africa, they work in challenging environments with unique health risks which have not been investigated until now. Methods To understand the health challenges faced by the dogs, semi-structured interviews were conducted with participants from 14 organisations that used working dogs in their conservation programmes. The data was qualitatively analysed by thematic analysis. Results Five themes were generated. Three affective themes influenced how participants responded to the challenges associated with having a successful conservation dog programme. A strong handler-dog attachment, proficient handler training, and the acknowledgement of the challenging environment were pivotal to maintaining dog health. Two themes related to the difficulties in managing these programmes and how veterinary support interacts with the management choices being made. Discussion To have healthy conservation dogs, current and future programmes should focus on fostering the handler-dog relationship and provide continuous handler training. The management of conservation dogs’ health should adopt an evidence-based approach. Future research should focus on areas where the evidence base is lacking, particularly in the areas of prevention and treatment of African canine trypanosomiasis. Programmes should develop a good working relationship with a veterinarian that has access to evidence-based veterinary medical information.

Behind the Paper

This one is a fun example of A) how for a lot of R(D)SVS programmes the pandemic didn’t actually impact our teaching that much and B) if you work internationally your work day didn’t change hugely.

Nicola was one of our Conservation Medicine MSc students, and she came to me with this project idea practically fully formed. I had absolutely no idea about conservation dogs until I started working with our MSc programmes, and I suspect they’ll be a surprise to many of us. Conservation dogs support conservation by providing tracking for endangered animals and detection of illegal goods or activities such as poaching.

Nicola was interested in the Human-Animal Relationship side of this: how do the handlers manage the many challenges of looking after a working dog in remote areas? I really provided Nicola with the lightest of MSc supervision touches. It was honestly one of the highlights of an otherwise tough work year, dialling in to a call with Nicola and firing her a bunch of thought provoking questions and sitting back to hear her think about them. It was lovely to have some moments of normalcy sitting at my kitchen table, at a programme designed to be delivered at distance .

As there’s so little information about what challenges are out there, Nicola chose to conduct semi-structured interviews to scope out as much information as possible and narrow down the issues that might be useful for further investigation. This also allowed her to explore the human-animal relationship between the working dogs and their handlers. I find working animal relationships fascinating, and have been lucky enough to do some research with Military Working Dogs and their handlers. Something that was really apparent to me, but impossible to surface in our current way of publishing science, is how similar some of the challenges are. One of Nicola’s themes from her interviews was how the handlers acknowledged the risk to the dogs, both of disease and injury. Given how risk is thought about these days in terms of when we opt to neuter animals, vaccination status and diet choices, I think this is something about working animal relationships that we don’t explore enough.

The most interesting challenge to me was the evidence gap between the issues handlers were seeing and how they could seek out or receive veterinary advice. Concerns about medication side effects and how to establish cause of death to minimise risk going forward were very apparent in the data. With my vet ed hat on, I loved the phrase “getting a proper vet” - what is that if not a perfect description of competence from a client perspective?

With the publication of this study, we now have a lot more evidence regarding how handlers value conservation working dogs and what we can do to support these animals. And I’m delighted that Nicola was able to persevere and get this one published. Nicola couldn’t have been too scarred by the process because she’s now one of our colleagues in clinics, which I think is a great boon to us.

And finally - a big thanks to an unnamed colleague for finding us a little bit of money to make this paper open access.