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February 17, 2010

The Geese Peacekeeper

Holly Hazard says her dog Dakota is the true leader of this "Geese Peace" mission

Part of an online series profiling staff and friends who volunteer "Off Duty"

  • Holly Hazard prepares to join her dog Dakota and a friend on a tour of the lake. The HSUS

  • Mission accomplished, the crew heads back to shore. The HSUS

by Holly Hazard

A decade ago and new to my lakefront neighborhood, I heard rumors that our homeowners association was planning a roundup of some 150 Canada geese who had made the 130-acre lake their home. 

The geese were regarded as a nuisance, primarily due to their prodigious droppings that encroached on our small beaches, grassy play areas, and carefully manicured lawns.

While many of us had moved to Lake Barcroft inside the Washington, D.C., beltway to be near the magnificent wildlife like foxes, herons, turtles, and geese, others were so offended by the fecal litter that they wanted the geese killed.

Without controls, a flock will double in size every five years, and community feelings were running high over the issue. I joined a group determined to stop the roundup and find another solution. We researched the possibilities and made a commitment to the community: If they would cancel the killing, we would solve the problem efficiently, effectively, and without controversy.  

We explored various aversion strategies and talked to a number of wildlife experts, including our own Dr. John Hadidian at The HSUS. Mylar tape, plastic owls, and motion detector squirt guns had no effect on the birds, so we continued the egg oiling program started years before that had once kept the population stable. We also discouraged residents from feeding the geese and searched for a humane way to scare the animals out of the neighborhood.

The most promising solution seemed to be a border collie, widely regarded as among the most intelligent and energetic of breeds. I volunteered to provide a home for a female Border Collie and named her Dakota. A dog trainer had spotted Dakota at a sheep dog trial and witnessed her owner drop-kicking her for defecating while in the middle of a competition. The trainer made an offer to the owner, took Dakota home, taught her to work geese, then sold her to our community.

A slender, delicate, smart and gentle soul, Dakota is intensely shy and, if I may humbly say so, just mad about me. She sleeps in a little nook under my bed, anxiously awaits my arrival and mourns my departure. The only thing she wants to do, any day and every day, is to herd geese. She does it brilliantly and has proven to be the answer to our dilemma.

After having several “family” dogs, we learned what living with a working dog really meant. She didn’t want to run with us on our morning jogs. She was not interested in playing Frisbee with the kids. She shunned other humans. And she refused to be house-trained. However, we’ve learned to cope and accept this as a likely consequence of brutality in her former life. 

One incredible and humbling aspect of our “Geese Peace” program is that Dakota—not me or any of the other volunteers—is its true leader. We take her out on the lake in a small flat-bottomed boat and cruise the shore to remind the feisty birds that they are welcome to visit but must find another place to call home.

She knows the lake, easily senses the coves where the geese may be hiding, and through her body language guides the boat operator to places where they are roosting. About a foot from shore, she hops off, runs behind the geese, and, on the signal “Right there girl, right there,” she slowly moves toward the geese, pressuring them to move toward the boat or to fly away—which they invariably do.

The geese soon learn that the lake has a “super predator” in residence. Because they don’t have any young to protect (due to the egg oiling), they can quickly find another place to roost for the night, and with Dakota’s continued, mild hazing, the absences stretch to weeks and months ... and then an entire season.

We went from a community torn apart by a wildlife conflict to one proud to have peacefully solved it. This method is quickly gaining ground in the United States and the United Kingdom for its ability to efficiently and humanely settle issues communities encounter with unwanted geese. Our particular program is a partnership between humans and a truly inspirational animal with whom I get to share my life.

Holly Hazard, chief innovations officer for The HSUS, is a former vice-president of Geese Peace, a nonprofit, all-volunteer organization founded to promote effective, humane solutions to wildlife conflicts.

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