Bear - Koala Hero: How Bear became a koala rescue dog

Bear has become a national hero for his brave efforts finding endangered koalas through the bushfires. But it's not without the help of his team.

He was the naughty puppy who tore through rubber tires and household walls, and while his behaviour caused mayhem for his owners, they were the signs that Dr Romane Cristescu was looking for. 

"Bear is a very special colleague," she says of the Australian koolie. 

Since founding Detection Dogs for Conservation with Associate Professor Celine Frere at the University of the Sunshine Coast in 2015, the scientists have built a team of five working dogs trained to source and protect endangered wildlife. But unlike other companies, the organisation is non-for-profit and rescues the 'unwanted' dogs who have OCD behavioural issues.

This is how Bear's story started - an Australian Koolie puppy with obsessive compulsive tendencies for playing who was kept indoors and ultimately destroyed their home. "He was puppy that was in a small flat and he was going crazy because he was so bored  - he started eating and chewing everything," says Romane.

It just so happened that Romane and her team put a call out on social media looking for rascal dogs and was soon introduced to Bear. "If he wasn't rescued within a few days, he was going to the pound," Romane adds. "They’re not the animals that get rescued because they are so intense."

But luckily for Bear, he was brought into training a the Detection Dogs for Conservation and passed every test. Bear had the exact personality the conservation looks for.

"All dogs that we have here are obsessed," Romane explains. "We call them OCD which stands for obsessive compulsive disorder for playing. We look for dogs whose world disappears when you have their toy. This is very intense and that means if the toy is out they don’t want a pat, they don’t want to cuddle, they just want to play.

"The basic training is remembering a koala's odour, that is the same for each dog," Romane explains. "Dogs are very clever, so this is traditional behaviour training which associates a reward for finding that odour. Any time they find that odour, they get to play, and very quickly they find that connection, only in a few weeks.

"We collect koala fur when it is shaved to sample blood from animal hospitals get Bear used to the scent. We walk around the yard making sure we leave a little bit of fur and make sure he can follow that all the way to the source of the odour which is usually a bigger bit of fur, and we just repeat that a lot with toy rewards," the scientist explains.

"We always say Bear has the hardest task is very hard because the koala is normally in a hard position to find whether they're really high or there's been strong winds, so we also train him to track the animals on the ground.

"Bear is extra special because he uses scent to find koalas for over 100 metres. As humans, we can only use vision but a lot of the time things are hidden. Dogs like Bear rarely miss the odour. 

"With Bear's ability, we can find out a lot of things about koalas; where they live, their genetics, their diet, their hormones and more."

To support Bear and his team at USC's Detection for Dogs Conservation, you can donate directly here. 

Find out more of Bear's story on Bear - Koala Hero on Wednesday March 18 at 8.30pm on LifeStyle

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