Canine Goose Patrol
The U-M is using border collies to herd geese at the North Campus Research Complex.
by Jan Schlain
From the June, 2014 issue
The NCRC, the old Pfizer complex, employs some 2,000 people. It's also home to perhaps a dozen nesting pairs of Canada geese. And when those geese hatch their babies, they bring their families to the entrances of the buildings, where the grass is greenest and the "buffet" of plantings most lush and dense. They leave behind copious droppings--and sometimes challenge people who cross their paths. "There have been numerous incidents where they have harassed people who are trying to enter buildings," says NCRC spokesperson Kara Gavin, "including families with children trying to enter the child care center that's on the site."
Kirk Mehlhaff doesn't like to call the geese aggressive--it's more a matter, he says, of protecting their goslings and mates from perceived human threats. But the geese can be pretty threatening. "They're about twenty pounds, on average," says Mehlhaff. "Their wings are very powerful. They are very intimidating when they stand and open their wings and hiss at you. They can actually hurt people."
Gavin says the university tried "about ten other things," including coating the grass with a substance supposedly distasteful to geese, before turning to Mehlhaff's company, Gooseworks. It uses border collies to keep the geese and people apart.
Gooseworks grew out of a meeting some years ago between the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the Michigan Border Collie Association, then headed by Mehlhaff's wife, Wendy Villarreal. The DNR needed help, he says, "because there wasn't really any other solution for managing geese, and that's what we're about."
The couple train their border collies to convince the geese that they're in danger, much the way the geese are trying to convince people they're in danger. The idea is to persuade the birds to stay away from the building entrances.
"We're not an eradication program," says Mehlhaff, who's previously done work for the city at nearby Gallup Park and Huron Hills Golf Course. "We simply manage these birds to make them [have] less conflict with the humans." He,
Villarreal, and a third handler bring four or more dogs trained to use their livestock-herding instincts on geese.
"Once they're focused on the bird, it feels uncomfortable, and it's going to fly away, because it's perceiving our dog as a predator," Mehlhaff says. "The dogs are trained, literally, to act like predators. The dogs become actors playing a role. They never touch the birds." They're trained to ignore the other water birds that frequent NCRC's water-detention ponds, including herons, egrets, and ducks.
"Some people, in the beginning especially, have concerns about using dogs to control geese," says Mehlhaff. "They love wildlife, which I understand. Once they realize that we're not there causing any harm, and it's minimal stress on the birds, and all we're doing is trying to alter their behavior, then they put their focus on the dog."
The canine actors respond to human fans as professionally as they do to the geese. "When they're working, they won't give anybody the time of day," Mehlhaff says. "But after...yes, they love being petted. They love the attention."
[Originally published in June, 2014.]