Dog and owner pick up rubbish from their ‘spot’

Teamwork . . . Madeleine Child with her clever dog Gaucho take a rest during their walk in their 'spot' in the town belt near Otago Boys' High School. PHOTO: ELLA STOKES


One extra-clever dog and his owner are taking a new approach to picking up litter.

Madeleine Child has adopted a spot as part of the Dunedin City Council Adopt a Spot initiative, which allows residents to claim an area they are responsible for keeping litter-free.

However, Ms Child is not picking it up alone. In fact, she has taught her dog, Gaucho, to pick litter up for her.

Each day she and Gaucho walk through their spot, which is the town belt area near Otago Boys’ High School, and pick up rubbish.

Gaucho is a “litter-picking dog”, as Ms Child described him, and she said he loved his job.

She has been training him to do it using operant conditioning training, which is based on a type of learning in which an animal learns from its behaviours as it acts on the environment.

Not only does the 6-year-old Brittany spaniel find and pick up the rubbish, but he also puts it in the bag.

After he was successful in his litter picking he was always rewarded with a treat, Ms Child said.

“The operant conditioning methods of shaping dog behaviour is about tapping into what they want to do anyway – sniffing stuff out, the thrill of the hunt, joining in, being rewarded. It uses the science of how a dog’s brain works.

“It’s exciting when he picks up a piece of rubbish . . . it’s great that my pet can actually achieve something.”

Ms Child said her litter picking was much more than doing her bit; she was also trying to change the stigma associated with it.

She said picking up rubbish often had a bit of a bad image around it.

“Forever we’ve sent naughty children to pick up rubbish. It’s always been a punishment .. I want to change that image.”

Ms Child recalled when her father took her to ecology action clean-up days when she was a child.

“We’d set off for some beach or country spot and set to, searching out the rubbish, spotting the half-buried dumped stuff. Once I remember we found bags and bags of household stuff and searched through it and found names evidence and it was thrilling imagining the baddy nabbed.”

She said it was all about turning something boring into something fun.