They've been our best friends for centuries, and in more recent years, dogs have proved they can also be our allies in conservation, from sniffing out endangered species to fighting wildlife crime. One place where they've notched up a major conservation victory is on a small island off the Australian coast, where a colony of tiny penguins has been brought back from the brink – a success story that's now inspired a multimillion-dollar movie that opens in the country this week.

Middle Island, a rocky outcrop off the coast of Victoria, is best known for its avian inhabitants: it's home to a colony of the world's smallest penguins. Just 33 centimetres tall (13 inches), the little penguin – or fairy penguin, if you prefer (of course you do!) – tips the scales at only around one kilogram.

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The world's smallest penguin species, the little penguin (Eudyptula minor) stands just 33cm off the ground. Image: JJ Harrison, Flickr

While the birds spend most of their lives at sea, they do come ashore when breeding season rolls round – and that's where Middle Island's residents began running into trouble. The few hundred metres that separate the island from the mainland are not much of an obstacle for hungry foxes who proved quite capable of crossing the distance at low tide for the promise of an easy penguin meal.

With the predators picking off the defenceless birds, populations began to plummet dangerously: by 2005, what was once a colony numbering in the hundreds had been left with fewer than ten survivors. 

Enter "Oddball". The maremma sheepdog was initially bought by a mainland farmer whose chickens were being targeted by the very same enemy. "I used to spend my nights up with a rifle shooting foxes. One night I noticed the neighbour's dog barking and the light went on in my head. I realised he was barking at the same thing I was trying to shoot," the farmer, Allan Marsh, told ABC last year. 

Marsh decided to get a dog of his own, and Oddball soon proved to be a pro at keeping foxes away from the farm. After a series of fortunate events, the sheepdog ended up on Middle Island, where wildlife officials hoped her chicken-guarding skills could work to keep the penguins safe too. 

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Since the maremma sheepdogs arrived on the island, no penguins have been lost to foxes. Image: Warrnambool City Council

Just as certain traits in high-energy Belgian shepherds make them great allies on anti-poaching missions in South Africa, centuries of breeding have made maremma sheepdogs the perfect guardians. Long used in Europe to keep livestock safe from wolves and foxes, the dogs are calm, highly intelligent and gentle, yet fiercely protective of their flocks.  

Oddball first set paw on Middle Island in 2006, when the penguin colony was on the verge of total collapse. Since then, other maremmas have followed in her footsteps, and the Middle Island Maremma Project has proved a major conservation success. Fox attacks have stopped entirely and penguin numbers have been recovering, with around 180 birds at last count. 

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Eudy is one of two maremma sheepdogs guarding Middle Island's penguin colony during the breeding season. Image: Warrnambool City Council

Today, the pooch patrols are carried out by sisters Tula and Eudy, who spend five days of the week on the island during the penguin breeding season. "They love living on the island; they get very excited when they go back there," says Peter Abbott, one of the dog handlers for the project. The dogs also ensure humans keep away, to minimise any disruption to nests.

After many summers of hard work, the dog duo has now reached retirement age, so the team is looking to raise funds to train a new generation of penguin guardians. And getting enough support for that project may prove easier when a movie based on Oddball's amazing story hits Australian cinemas this week:

Top header image: Warrnambool City Council, Flickr