The dog has been man’s best friend for tens of thousands of years. Our friend has travelled to the moon for us (Laika the dog was the first living organism in space), guards our homes, assists in hunting, helps weed out drug-related crime and helps scan for cancer tumours. Now our intelligent and multifaced companion has become a new use and help.
Dogs are now serving as field assistants in ecological research. Ten years ago, Natural Resources Institute Finland began utilizing game bird dogs in willow ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus) surveys in Lapland. Previously the surveys were conducted with human help.
In the willow ptarmigan surveys, Lapland is divided into 45 areas and these areas contain 171 survey sectors altogether. Dogs assist in the counting of willow ptarmigans from 670 kilometers. Usually two humans at a time take part in the surveys. One of them guides the dog while the other observes that the human and dog stay in their sector and count all the willow ptarmigans. Only one dog works at a time, although several dogs present may be present.
The dog’s purpose is to silently search for willow ptarmigans and after finding birds, the dog will freeze and then flush them into flight. Once the birds are flying, the surveyor counts them. In addition to counting, the person also determines the sex and age of the birds, and estimates the point where the flock was flushed. This method provides an estimate of population density. The population density of Finnish willow ptarmigans is 7.5 individuals per square kilometer. This estimate was received from last year’s surveys. The yearly variation in willow ptarmigan population density is great. Population dynamics are based on reproductive success. The willow ptarmigan population size can vary from tens of thousands to some hundreds of thousands in the Lapland region.
Finland is somewhat behind in utilizing this survey method. Sweden and Norway have used game bird dogs since the 1990s. The dogs must be experienced in flushing birds into flight, rather than being successful in working tests. Dogs usually learn from hunting situations. Game bird dogs are bred and trained for seeking and disturbing birds into flight. The dog breed makes no difference in the surveys, but game bird dogs are most suitable for the purpose.