Reporter: Michael Usher
Producer: Howard Sacre
Imagine being thrown on the scrap heap in the prime of your life.
Every year in Australia, thousands of dogs are put down for no other reason than their owners simply don't want them any more.
But one man is offering them new hope, putting their superhuman senses to use in jobs we could never do.
Michael Usher has been travelling the country with Steve Austin, who must be Australia's most dedicated dog-lover, rescuing talented canines from death row and giving them a new lease on life.
If you believe the old adage that teaching old dogs new tricks is a waste of time, you're in for a surprise.
MICHAEL USHER: Just after dawn, in the Kimberley, in the far north west of Australia, a highly-trained Springer Spaniel named Sally, is on the tail of a very damaging predator. She’s not after a dingo but, an even bigger menace, a feral cat. So right now she’s in search mode?
STEVE: She’s in search mode. Yeah.
MICHAEL USHER: Professional dog trainer, Steve Austin, has taught Sally to single out the smell of these wild cats from the vast array of animal odours in the Kimberley.
STEVE: You’d see now she’s changed her behaviour, her whole body language has changed and she’s gone straight in a line, so that’s on that line where that feral cat has probably walked.
MICHAEL USHER: She’s picked up the scent?
STEVE: She’s picked up the scent right now, yep.
MICHAEL USHER: Suddenly, the target’s in sight and Sally becomes a cat-seeking missile. And here’s our cat right here? Looking straight down at us?
STEVE: Looking at you and I. If he jumps on you, Michael I’m out of here OK?
MICHAEL USHER: It’s every man for himself. This wildlife ranger on four legs is a stunning success. Around the country, there are millions of feral cats. They look like your average moggie, but they kill dozens of native mammals every night. And this one’s not going quietly. He gets away and Sally’s on her tail again.
STEVE: It’s laid up here somewhere. Here we go, she’s got it again. There it is there. It is up the tree. Good girl, Sally.
MICHAEL USHER: But as you’ll see, Sally’ job still isn’t over. This chase has a long way to go. This cat, I tell you.
STEVE: Well, it’s got nine lives, Michael.
MICHAEL USHER: Sally’s just one of a mighty squad of clever dogs with jobs around Australia - in airports, prisons, and military bases. And here’s the thing – these aren’t the pick of the litter, bred for success. Steve rescues most of them from death row.
STEVE: One of the most fulfilling things I can do is to get a dog from a pound or an unwanted animal, you know, no one wants him and to develop that attitude and that, that and that drive, into a really great dog.
MICHAEL USHER: You love your dogs, don’t you?
STEVE: Love them, love them to death.
MICHAEL USHER: Steve, what are you looking for?
STEVE: Well, Michael, good outgoing dogs, dogs that have got a lot of drive.
MICHAEL USHER: Today he’s looking for recruits at an animal hospital in Melbourne.
STEVE: And the fact that this little guy Marley, the little lab here, wants to come up and chew the ball, little tail’s wagging, nice and keen. So he’s certainly a candidate. Hello, Douglas. He belongs on a 14-year-old little girl’s bed I think. Look at him, can you just see him sitting there?
MICHAEL USHER: There are too many to choose from and the sad truth is that being unwanted kills around 100,000 dogs being put down every year.
STEVE: I tend to think if I get two or three, that’s two or three that are not going to be put to sleep.
MICHAEL USHER: It must be hard though, you’re leaving a lot behind aren’t you? There’s that natural feeling of wanting to grab them all and take them?
STEVE: Yeah, but my wife would kill me.
MICHAEL USHER: Yeah, exactly. Out of all these dogs, Steve chooses two for auditions – first there’s Marley, the labrador. What’s he saying?
STEVE: He’s saying ‘take me home Steve, let’s do some work’.
MICHAEL USHER: Then there’s a German Shepherd - Labrador cross.
STEVE: This is Jack.
MICHAEL USHER: Immediately, Steve finds what he calls a play drive – no matter what, no matter how he’s distracted, Jack has to get that ball. This dog's well on his way already?
STEVE: I’m excited Michael, I’m really excited.
MICHAEL USHER: A few days later they arrive at Steve’s kennels in Sydney.
STEVE: OK let’s see what you’re made of eh!
MICHAEL USHER: Marley was given up because his owners moved house and Jack because he destroyed any backyard he was put in. The training he needed when he was younger, is about to start.
STEVE: Once they get that training and that discipline and that control and that right attitude on our part, we don’t have bad dogs. There are a lot of bad owners but not too many bad dogs.
MICHAEL USHER: If you’ve been to Tasmania lately, you’ll have been met by Steve’s great detector dogs. They sniff out prohibited goods for the quarantine service. If Kimberley sits, you know someone’s in trouble. Next morning, Kimberley’s on the job again in Devonport sniffing the hundreds of arriving vehicles. Steve likes to point out that this hound from the pound was a bargain at $250.
STEVE: If that one quarantine dog saves one piece of material coming in, that dog is worth billions of dollars, not millions – billions. You see if foot and mouth gets into this country we’re in big trouble.
MICHAEL USHER: Kimberley’s handler, Rhonda Hall remembers finding her at the RSPCA.
RHONDA: She had half an hour to live.
MICHAEL USHER: She had half an hour to live when you found her?
STEVE: You know, we all hear about that story ‘oh my dog’s okay. He’s gone to a farm’. Well, mate there’s no farms. That’s Disneyland stuff. The farm is usually death, and let’s be really brutally honest it’s death and thrown on a landfill. That’s where the dogs end up and no one wants to see that.
MICHAEL USHER: Some dogs get a real lucky break. Tally went from being a pound underdog, to a TV star, thanks to another very talented dog trainer, Sharon Holden.
SHARON: I actually suspect that she was a Christmas puppy.
MICHAEL USHER: And given up.
SHARON: Yeah, the novelty wore off. And she’s such a remarkable dog and working in the industry, being an animal trainer I definitely wanted to get a dog that I could work with and maybe get into the film industry. A week later she’s in a movie with Olivia Newton John so she was just a natural from the beginning.
MICHAEL USHER: Instant starter.
SHARON: Absolutely. Yeah.
MICHAEL USHER: Back in the Kimberley, the long chase for the feral cat continues and Sally the Springer Spaniel has it cornered up another tree.
STEVE: I don’t think it’s going to run next time too far. Right give us a leg up someone, will you?
MICHAEL USHER: The dog’s done her job, so Steve Austin volunteers to finish the job.
STEVE: Come on mate, let’s go, come on.
MICHAEL USHER: Now it might seem all too much effort to catch a humble tabby – but there’s method in the madness. Once the cat’s in the bag, we learned why Sally’s job is so vital. She was trained for the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, a non-profit group that’s set up a network of wildlife sanctuaries around the country covering two-and-a-half million hectares. Conservation Manager, Doctor Sarah Legge, says getting rid of feral cats is top of her to-do list.
MICHAEL USHER: So what sort of damage could he do, out here?
SARAH: Well, every night a cat that size would probably be eating 10, 10 to 15 native animals a day.
MICHAEL USHER: Just that one cat?
SARAH: Just that one cat. So if we think across Australia there’s a minimum of 12-million cats, say they’re each eating 5 native animals a day just to be conservative, that means you’re talking about 60-million native animals every day eaten by feral cats.
MICHAEL USHER: That is incredible isn’t it?
SARAH: It’s a phenomenal number.
MICHAEL USHER: By now, cat-lovers will be wondering what happens next. Mostly they’re put down, but this one’s lucky – he’ll be set free with a radio collar for research – until Sally tracks it again. Now back to those dogs Steve found at the pound a few months back in Melbourne. Marley is training to save the Murray River turtle. If he can find turtle eggs on the riverbank before the foxes do, they can be incubated and released. And remember Jack? He’s being trained on a specially-built scent wall and if he passes, he’ll go to the Army as an explosives dog.
STEVE: Hole number one, a bit of toothpaste, hole number two a dirty sock. But on hole number six is our explosives What Jacks gotta do is leave and not respond to any non-target odours and he has to find the explosive.
MICHAEL USHER: It turns out Jack’s one of the best detector dogs Steve’s ever found. He passed his first test like a champion – his reward is a tennis ball. You’re really proud of your dogs, your graduates, aren’t you?
STEVE: Yeah a lot, yeah. I like to inspire people to give their dog a bit of time, a bit of effort and you’ll have a changed dog. And if you get the right advice you’ll get that dog changed in just a matter of weeks. Don’t’ give up on your dog, please.