The nose of Ozcar the beagle and those of nearly 200 other detector dogs know best when it comes to keeping prohibited fruit, vegetables, plants and meat products from high-risk countries from entering the United States.
According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a detector dog can scan a piece of luggage for smuggled or forgotten fruits in mere seconds — making them a key tool for screening passengers and cargo to prevent harmful plant pests and foreign animal disease from entering the country.
For example, earlier this year at the Philadelphia airport,
In 1984, the U.S. Department of Agriculture established its detector dog program called the “Beagle Brigade” at the Los Angeles International Airport. The program started with one beagle, trained to sniff out plants and animal products in luggage and carry-on items arriving on international flights.
Beagles and beagle mixes are the preferred breed of dog, according to CBP, because of their keen sense of smell, non-threatening size, high food drive and gentle disposition with the public.
Today, the agriculture canine program consists of around 185 teams.
Joe Scheele, California Agriculture Liaison for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said the beagle teams are their “most important asset that is seen by the public,” but they are not the only part of the canine team.
“We also have large breeds that will work the warehouses, mail facilities and also work at our international borders, because they can get into cars and move through,” Scheele said.
Scheele said that most of the dogs are rescues coming from the Atlanta area, which is near the USDA National Detector Dog Training Center.
Before they can be trained, the dogs are tested for temperament and to make sure they can detect five basic scents. Scheele said the detector dogs have to be food-driven animals, which he said (suprisingly) all dogs are not.
“That’s pork, beef, citrus, mango and apple,” Scheele said. “That’s to prove that the dog has the capability to do it and has the temperament to work in an environment like an airport or at a cargo facility, around the darkness or chaos that goes with imported goods or that sort of thing.”
There are between 75 to 85 different unique scents a detector dog can pick up on, said Scheele, and dogs smell in layers.
Duane Stateler, vice president of the National Pork Producer Council board of directors, said the entire NPPC board recently had a chance to visit the NDDTC and then see the dogs in action at the Atlanta airport.
“They had the dogs running for about four hours on the flights that were coming in, and the amount of meat that they had taken in just four hours — I just couldn’t believe it,” Stateler said of the Atlanta airport.
He also had a first-hand experience with a detector dog, on his way back from a trade trio to Mexico. Leaving one morning, Stateler had a plastic bag with a few strips of bacon in it, which he ate in the airport waiting for his flight, then disposed of the bag. Five hours later while waiting for his bag on the carousel at his destination, Stateler said a lab approached his bag.
“And even though it was five hours later, when I arrived, I’m waiting for my bag to come on the carousel, and I looked down and here’s this lab sitting beside my briefcase,” Stateler said.
Ozcar and Sari
Once the initial step of confirming a dog can handle the job of detecting, training can take from two to six months, said Scheele. Then the dog is matched with a handler, who undergoes a 10-week training period.
“The handlers work as a partner with the dog, so they have similar temperament and similar dispositions,” he said. “There’s a mesh between dog and handler.”
Handler Sari Hall works with her beagle, Ozcar.
“We graduated from the academy about year ago, and then we trained together for 10 weeks,” said Hall as Ozcar accepted pets from attendees at the World Pork Expo on June 8 in Des Moines.
Hall said she and Ozcar both have a “very chill” disposition” but they’re both very focused on getting their job done, and not ones for too much chit-chat.
“He’s very dainty, whereas a lot of the dogs are very high energy, so they’ll actually jump by somebody that has something in their backpack,” Hall said. “(Ozcar) will just either gently put his little nose up, to alert to it that way. Or he’ll sit in front of the person and then just stare at them.”
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