Detector Dogs Have a Nose for Pests [Opinion]

Detector Dogs Have a Nose for Pests [Opinion]

This beagle signals that a piece of luggage contains contraband at Washington Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, VA . The Beagle Brigade is a team of beagles and their human handlers who, as part of the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service inspect luggage at U.S. airports searching for agricultural products. The Beagle Brigade program averages around 75,000 seizures of prohibited agricultural products a year. Unauthorized meat, animal byproducts, fruit and vegetables can carry diseases and pests that have the potential to infect U.S. agriculture. APHIS works in conjunction with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Public Health Service at entry points to the U.S., including land borders, ports and airports. The Beagle Brigade generally works in the baggage-claim area at international airports. (Photo: USDA)

For any of us who have traveled internationally, the queue for customs can be a time for thought. Returning home from covering our company’s Biocontrols South Africa event a few weeks ago, I found myself watching the customs video on detector dogs at the Detroit airport, and I started thinking about how important — albeit annoyingly invasive — our time with the customs agents is.

This was not the first time I’ve been stuck in a customs line, and it certainly won’t be the last. Typically it’s after an International Fruit Tree Association (IFTA) conference, where I have to indicate I’ve been on a farm, and then answer additional follow-up questions.

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While I’m assuming the questions are to prevent me from bringing in the next hoof and mouth disease into the U.S., the extra scrutiny is designed to screen for anything that might make your farms more vulnerable. A farm visit in the summer is very different than an orchard visit in the dead of winter. But, after a few follow-up questions most customs agents understand that I didn’t come in contact with livestock, and also didn’t bring back any fruits.

So as annoying as the extra questions a customs agent might ask because we visited a farm are, it’s important to be honest and forthcoming. These questions and screenings are a vital step to protect the crops you grow!

During my stop with a customs agent in British Columbia (going to IFTA), I once had an agent ask me if I was bringing in any apples illegally since I mentioned I was attending an apple educational conference.

“I write about agricultural pests for a living, I wouldn’t dream of it,” I told him.

Just think about how many invasive pests have found their way into the states in the past 10 or 15 years — spotted wing drosophila, brown marmorated stink bug, Asian citrus psyllid, spotted lanternfly, etc. Some may have hitchhiked on shipping containers or garden material, but nevertheless, they came, they stayed, and they multiplied. And they’re now threatening the crops you grow.

The video explained to all of us in that Detroit airport line the purpose of the cute and cuddly beagles. This USDA project has utilized the natural sniffing talents of beagles and other rescue dogs and turned their snouts into the ultimate stop for those bringing in fruits and vegetables illegally from other countries.

It surprises me how many people don’t realize how many invasive pests have made their way here, and how taking steps like these can prevent their accidental importation. I know some people returning from abroad want to bring back exotic fruit, herbs, or plant material not available at home. But, how do we know those are safe?

In an Animal Planet video highlighting the work the detector dogs do, these four-legged customs agents prevented more than 118,000 pounds of prohibited items in one year. That’s a lot of sniffing!

For anyone who has a beagle or beagle mix (my family has a beagle mix rescue), this is a natural job. Those dogs can find peanut butter in the remotest of places. But enough about my affinity for beagles. I’ve watched these dogs in action. They are on a mission to keep your crops safe, and I, for one am happy they’re on the job.