Sheepdog and her mistress receive a master's degree

Issued by
North West, May 19, 2016

South Africa's first and only dog who was part of a master's-degree project in Zoology recently received a "degree" from the North-West University.

Est'e Matthew, owner of Jessie (the little sheepdog), trained her dog to detect the scent of frogs below ground for research and conservation purposes. Matthew recently received her master's degree (MSc), and the title of her thesis was "The use of a sniffer dog for amphibian conservation ecology".

Jessie's training started when she was six months old. She was trained to distinguish the scent of the Giant African Bullfrog below ground. This frog is a protected species in Gauteng, as its habitat is becoming gradually smaller as the result of urbanisation. Jessie's training started in 2014, and she found her first wild bullfrog in December 2014 above the ground. Approximately six months later she detected the first bullfrog below ground.

This frog hibernates for up to 11 months of the year below ground and is above ground only for about a month during November and December to breed and lay eggs. Matthew says that this makes it extremely difficult to find the bullfrog during the rest of the year, and creates a problem, especially with new developments next to the breeding areas of the bullfrog.

She says that her supervisor, Prof Ch'e Weldon, played a major role in planning and training Jessie. Jessie's training was done in a scientific, reliable manner and the same test was repeated up to 40 times to ensure a reliable result.

Jessie parents are two working dogs on a sheep farm near Bloemfontein. During Matthew's studies Jessie had to stay with a friend, as Matthew was in a residence and Jessie could not stay with her.

Matthew was recently employed by the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), where she will help with the conservation programme for the critically endangered riverine rabbit (Bunolagus monticularis). She is taking Jessie with her and will probably use her to help with the research and conservation of the rabbits.

Matthew says that the EWT also has a programme for endangered amphibians, for which Jessie's nose will also be employed.