Skip main navigation
Close menu

Zoo New England’s “Turtle Dog” will assist staff with local conservation field work

There’s a new member of the Zoo New England team: Koda the Australian shepherd mix. Koda, affectionately known as the Zoo’s “Turtle Dog,” is being trained to assist staff in locating turtles in their native habitat as part of vital conservation work to protect and bolster regionally threatened populations of turtles, particularly the locally rare eastern box turtle.

Zoo New England’s Grassroots Wildlife Conservation is committed to protecting, restoring and enhancing wild populations of rare and declining species here in Massachusetts including eastern box turtles, Blanding’s turtles, marbled salamanders, eastern spadefoot toads, bridle shiners and New England blazing stars.

Staff currently depends on imprecise visual surveys to locate box turtles in dense woodlands. With their well camouflaged shells, human observers might step right next to a hiding box turtle without ever finding it. A dog, however, can use its highly developed sense of smell to pinpoint the turtles much more quickly and effectively. Dogs can be trained to distinguish between different species of turtles and possibly even males and females of one species. And that’s where Koda, the six-month-old Australian shepherd mix comes in. With more than 220 million olfactory receptors in its nose, a dog’s sense of smell is over 1,000 times greater than that of humans, making dogs like Koda a researcher’s best friend.

“Once Koda completes her training and is ready for the field, she will be an invaluable team member as she will assist us in more quickly and accurately locating turtles that we are working so hard to protect, ” said Dr. Bryan Windmiller, Zoo New England Director of Conservation.

Koda’s trainer, Zoo New England Assistant Curator Chris Bartos, is no stranger to this line of work. Bartos trained Finn, the first ever scat (feces) detection dog at the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) in Namibia. Finn currently works at the Fund’s headquarters helping them track cheetahs to define individual cheetah movements and territories. Unlike Finn, who moved to Namibia following his training with Bartos, Koda will train, live and work right here in Massachusetts. Bartos hopes the skills and training techniques she used to teach Finn will be as successful with Koda, who, like Finn, was also adopted from Mid-Atlantic Border Collie Rescue in Chestertown, Maryland.

“Koda was selected out of a litter of nine pups mainly based on her curiosity, playfulness and boldness,” says Bartos. “She was one of the first to try new things and explore new places. Although a puppy is always a gamble, she showed enough positive qualities to make her a good candidate for training.”

Her primary training is focusing on the basics, particularly building a solid recall. “Koda will be working off lead out in the field, so she has to be trained to come when called despite distractions,” says Bartos. “As we take her for walks, she will learn to range out away from her handler, but come back as soon as she’s called. She has to be confident enough to explore on her own, while at the same time being responsive.”

Another important part of Koda’s training is play. “To us, her job will be searching for turtles. But in her mind, she’s looking for treats or her toy, and her reward is an enthusiastic play session with her trainer after she successfully locates a turtle,” says Bartos.

As Koda is still quite young, she likely will not be assisting in the field until next spring or summer. Right now, she’s maturing and learning basic skills. Koda will also be a frequent zoo visitor, going on walks through Franklin Park Zoo several days a week in between her training and play sessions. It’s likely that a few lucky guests may have the chance to spot the small brown pup wearing her bright “Turtle Dog” vest.

Koda is one more asset in Zoo New England’s efforts to save rare and endangered species from extinction.