The dog handler is potentially the most important factor affecting working dog performance [1
]. The handler is responsible for more than simply following their dog in the field. They must be able to monitor and interpret their dog’s often subtle behaviours, and determine the most suitable areas and directions in which to work [4
]. Underestimating the dog handler’s role can jeopardise not only the working dog’s performance, but also their welfare [1
]. Whilst there is a large literature on ideal detection dog traits (reviewed by Jamieson et al. [5
]), there is currently minimal information on the optimal profile of a dog handler, with handler and owner personality profiles only beginning to be researched [1
]. Understanding what makes certain people more suited to dog handling, such as their knowledge, skills, and personality types, requires further research [8
Wildlife detection dogs are dogs that are used for an environmental purpose, such as locating scat, plants, or live animals to determine species presence or distribution [9
]. Wildlife detection dogs have been used globally for environmental surveys [10
], and are particularly useful for species that occur at low densities [13
]. Training a detection dog handler to operational standard requires significant time and dedication [14
]. Therefore, it is crucial that the best candidates are selected prior to dedicating significant resources. Whilst the literature lists certain important traits for dog handlers to possess (e.g., Rebmann et al. [15
], Hurt et al. [16
], Minhinnick et al. [17
]), there is no study that determines what wildlife detection dog handlers believe are important knowledge and skills. This is valuable information for new dog handlers or established handlers wanting to further their skills. Wildlife detection dog handlers will likely require unique skills in comparison with other detection fields due to the nature of wildlife detection work. Wildlife detection work is often required in highly remote areas, which poses multiple threats to the dog–handler team. The handler is also responsible for ensuring that their dogs pose no threat to wildlife, and may also be required to have a similar level of knowledge to wildlife ecologists to ensure survey success, which is specific to this field. Currently, there is little information published regarding the factors that influence dog handler selection [17
]. Therefore, this field would benefit from an analysis of the skills and knowledge that are crucial for a detection dog team’s success [17
When examining a person’s personality, their five main personality domains are typically measured—Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness [18
]. Previous research has determined that dog handlers have unique qualities, as shown by their five main personality domains, when compared to the personality profiles of the general population [19
]. In some cases, handler personality traits have also been correlated with their dog-handling practises [8
]. For example, male Polish police dog handlers were reported to have very high Conscientiousness scores, slightly above average Agreeableness and Extraversion scores, slightly below average Openness scores, and very low Neuroticism scores [19
]. However, no research has determined if wildlife detection dog handlers share similar traits. As previously highlighted, wildlife detection dog handlers have unique working requirements, so determining this information may assist with dog handler selection. As a handler’s personality impacts their dog training and handling practises [8
], it may also allow for dog-handler training programs to be better constructed for individuals.
This research had three main aims: (1) collect general information from Australian and New Zealand wildlife detection dog handlers to improve our understanding of their working roles; (2) determine the characteristics and knowledge that dog handlers believe are important to be successful in this specialised field; and (3) use a well-tested psychological assessment to determine if wildlife detection dog handlers share similar personality profiles. This information may assist with future wildlife detection dog handler selection and highlight skills that need to be attained to be successful in this niche field. This is especially needed in Australia, where wildlife detection dogs are still a relatively new survey method. The research hypotheses were: (1) handlers will rate the skills specific to dog handling and training highly (>4.5); and (2) handlers will have high Conscientiousness scores and low Neuroticism scores.
3.1. General Handler Information
A total of 35 completed questionnaires were collected from Australian and New Zealand dog handlers. Thirty-two individual dog handlers and eight working dog organisations were sent the questionnaire. As some working dog organisations distributed these questionnaires independently, it was not possible to calculate the exact response rate. Of the returned questionnaires, 31 were from Australian handlers and four were from New Zealand. The dog handlers had a mean age of 43.9 ± 9.1 years, with 54% being female. The majority of the handlers were professionals (80%), with a mean of 7.2 years of dog handling experience. Based on their detection dogs’ target species, 57% handled native species detection dogs, 37% handled pest species detection dogs, and 6% handled both native and pest species detection dogs (Table 1
The detection dogs used by the respondents belonged to a variety of breeds, with the majority coming from herding, gun dog, or terrier breeds (including cross-breeds). The dogs that are most commonly and currently used in Australia are Border Collies (29%), Labrador Retrievers (17%), and English Springer Spaniels (17%). Of the dog breeds listed, 26% of handlers recorded currently working with cross-breeds. Whilst the handlers varied in how emotionally attached they were to their detection dogs, all of the handlers agreed that their behaviours and stress levels impacted their dogs’ behaviours. Of the 35 handlers, 57% stated they were very emotionally attached to their dogs, while 34% were moderately emotionally attached, and 9% were mildly or not emotionally attached.
3.2. Important Handler Characteristics and Knowledge
The dog handlers were asked to rate a series of important dog handler skills and knowledge, which were listed in the literature. Qualities rated as most important were ‘ability to read dog body language’, ‘ability to trust in a dog’s indications’, ‘strong working ethic’, and ‘knowledgeable on dog behaviour’ (Table 2
). The qualities that were rated least important were ‘skilled in report writing’, ‘strong leader’, and ‘theoretical background in ecology’.
General linear models determined no significant differences between how the handlers rated these traits based on the handlers’ age, sex, country, employment (professional or volunteer), experience level (years dog handling), or target species (native or pest species). The only exception was trait three (skilled in dog handling), which was significantly impacted by the handlers’ employment, with volunteers rating it as significantly more important (mean = 4.9) than the professional handlers (mean = 4.3; p = 0.011). Of the handlers who listed additional skills or qualities that they believed were important, 45% stated patience, and 35% stated experience or knowledge of their working environment.
3.3. Personality Profiles
The handlers’ personality domains that were the most different to the average scores were the Agreeableness and Neuroticism domains. This scoring system is based on the classifications of ‘low’, ‘average’, or ‘high’ that are provided when the personality scores were calculated online, which was developed by Johnson [18
]. This online program classified a person’s results based on whether their score was in the lowest 30%, middle 40%, or highest 30% based on age and sex. For the purpose of this research, due to the differences in participants’ ages and sex, scores between 35–65 were classified as ‘average’. Scores above 65 were classified as ‘high’, and scores below 35 were classified as ‘low’. Whilst handlers’ mean personality scores differed from the average, there was a large range between the individual handlers’ scores (Table 3
General linear models determined that the handlers’ personality domains were not affected by age, except for the Conscientiousness domain (p = 0.04). Age was negatively correlated to Conscientiousness (Pearson correlation = −0.348, p = 0.04). Similarly, the dog handlers’ personality domains were not impacted by which target species they detected (native, pest, or both), except for the Openness domain (p = 0.018). The dog handlers’ gender, country of residence (i.e., Australia or New Zealand), employment (professional or volunteer handler), or attachment to their dog did not impact their personality scores. The only exception was Neuroticism, which was impacted by sex (p = 0.049), with males having higher mean scores than females (44 and 27.3, respectively). However, there was no significant difference between the different sexes’ personality domains. Further, the dog handler’s personality domains weren’t impacted by their level of emotional attachment to their dogs.
The returned questionnaires provided information on current wildlife detection dog handlers in Australia and New Zealand, skills they believed important, and their personality profiles. There are extensive lists of skills, knowledge, and traits that the literature states are important for detection dog handlers to possess (e.g., Rebmann et al. [15
], Hurt et al. [16
], Minhinnick et al. [17
]). These lists aren’t always created by dog handlers. Therefore, important skills may be overlooked.
Whilst all the skills listed in the distributed questionnaire were sourced from the literature, the dog handlers clearly rated certain skills to be more important than others. The skills that were listed the highest were focused on the detection dog itself. The only traits that were directly related to the detection dogs and were rated low were knowledge of canine olfaction and experience in dog training. This was unexpected, not only because knowledge on canine olfaction has been listed as important dog handler knowledge [17
], but also due to its relationship with environmental conditions. Dog handlers who have little experience in dog training or knowledge on dog learning theory are anticipated to struggle handling dogs in novel situations [17
]. Dog handlers with dog training knowledge have been reported to be more self-confident, more aware of their dog’s working abilities, and use significantly less aversive handling methods [23
]. Ensuring handlers have theoretical knowledge of dog training principles allows them to implement training practises that are efficient and humane. Therefore, future research would be beneficial to determine the performance variation between dog handlers who are also dog trainers, or have trained their current dogs, and handlers who are not experienced in dog training.
Whilst the dog handlers rated a sound knowledge of the target species relatively highly, both practical and theoretical ecological knowledge was not rated highly. This was unexpected, due to the impact that it may have on field survey success. Poor ecological knowledge may reduce the effectiveness of surveys and minimise information recorded on non-target species and habitat structure [16
]. If wildlife detection dog handlers are working in close partnership with ecologists or land managers, this knowledge may not be as important. However, this knowledge is likely to aid dog handlers and potentially improve their future work [16
There was a large variation in the handlers’ responses to how emotionally attached they were to their current detection dog/s. However, this level of attachment did not impact their personality scores. Based on the published literature, which highlights the importance and impact of the dog–handler relationship [8
], it was anticipated that all of the handlers would be very emotionally attached to their dogs. This was not demonstrated in our findings. Previous research has determined that dog–handler teams with higher quality relationships also had higher performance levels and better dog–handler communication [25
]. It could be argued that the higher the dog–handler relationship, the higher the dog’s dependence on their handler, thereby reducing the dog’s independence and performance [27
]. However, a larger proportion of the literature to date has supported the hypothesis that the dog–handler relationship is positively correlated to the dogs’ problem-solving abilities and working performances [25
]. During this project, the dog handler’s working performance was not evaluated. However, this would be beneficial in future research, with the dog teams’ performances being compared against their attachment levels. Further research is also needed on other factors that may impact dog–handler attachment and working performance, such as detection dogs’ living arrangements and conditions, daily time spent with the dog, and where the dog was sourced (e.g., adopted, purchased, or purposefully bred).
The dog handler’s personality influences the dog–handler interface and therefore the team’s performance [24
]. As a result, previous research has investigated how these differences in a handler’s personality impact a working dog’s performance [8
]. Within our study, there were differences between the handlers’ mean personality scores and the ‘average’ scores; however, there was a large range. This was most strongly demonstrated in the Agreeableness and Neuroticism domains. The handlers scored highly for Agreeableness. Agreeableness has previously been positively correlated with team co-operation and avoidance of conflicts, and negatively associated with dog owner-directed aggression [8
]. Handlers scoring high for Agreeableness also use less verbal corrections, potentially creating a more positive dog–handler working relationship [8
The dog handlers collectively scored low for the Neuroticism domain. Neuroticism in humans is related to anxious tendencies [33
]. Dog handlers scoring high for Neuroticism are reported to have dogs who perform less efficiently at working tasks and take longer to respond to commands [8
]. Having handlers with low Neuroticism scores may also improve a dog’s stress levels, with dogs having lower cortisol levels when handled by calm handlers [35
Collectively, the dog handlers scored in the higher percentile of the ‘average’ score for the Conscientiousness and Extraversion domains. It has been postulated that high Conscientiousness scores will be positively associated with the dog–handler relationship and their working performance [8
]. However, this association requires further research, and was not demonstrated in our results where Conscientiousness scores were not correlated with dog–handler emotional attachment. High scores for Extraversion are related to more confident individuals [36
]. Whilst dog handlers should be confident in their team’s abilities, it is important that these scores don’t become too high, or else over-confidence could negatively impact their performance. Further research on the relationship between a handler’s Extraversion scores and their working performance would be beneficial. The dog handlers had an average score for the Openness domain. This was surprising, as Openness has previously been related to adaptability within a working environment [8
]. However, there is currently minimal research on the relationship between a dog handler’s Openness score and their work.