Beagles Trained to Find Ag Smells

Beagle Brigade Helps Protect US Ag at Ports of Entry

Jennifer Carrico
By  Jennifer Carrico , Senior Livestock Editor
Ozcar is a member of USDA's Beagle Brigade and helps find items coming into the U.S. that could harm the agricultural industry. (DTN photo by Jennifer Carrico)

Editor's note: Because of the security roles of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agricultural specialists, the sources requested their full names not be used in this article.


REDFIELD, Iowa (DTN) -- The Beagle Brigade has been protecting American agriculture at ports of entry since 1984. Led by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agricultural specialists (USCBPAS), these dogs help detect harmful plants, pests and foreign animal diseases in luggage, carry-ons and cargo from other countries.

USCBPAS' Scheele said the dogs are selected based on their temperament and ability to concentrate on the job with a lot of people around. "Training is extensive with a dog before it's matched with a handler. They are first taught the scents of mango, citrus, apple, pork and beef," he explained. "It's the law of three. They are taught the smell and rewarded with treats when they find it." While all dogs are taught those five smells, they will likely have to learn a few new smells when they are placed at a certain location.


Once the dog shows signs it will work at the USDA training facility in Georgia, then a handler is matched to the canine and more training takes place. A new handler needs 10 weeks of training with a dog used to sniff scents at the ports of entry. Cargo training is a 12-week course. Once a handler knows the system, the handler trains for just four weeks if the person is matched with a new dog.

"We want the dog and the handler to mesh. They will be working together for the next four or five years and we won't separate that team," Scheele said. The two are together until one of them retires.

Ag specialist Brudnicki said she and dog, Pip, are definitely a team. "When you walk warehouses for hours looking for the smells they are trained on and they know they will get a treat if they find something, they are very attentive to their partner," she said.

She further explained the difference between the two kinds of training. Those trained to find items in luggage will sit next to the bag once they find something. Cargo dogs react a bit differently as they could search thousands of packages in a day. They will be more direct to the package of concern by bouncing on it or digging at it.


Scheele said travelers who declare all food and agricultural items they are bringing back may not get to keep them if they're prohibited items. Declaration can help prevent further problems. "There is a $300 to $500 fine for not declaring the items that aren't supposed to be coming into our country," he said. "Why do we do this? To protect our agricultural industry. That's our job."

A lot of people don't necessarily know what they can and can't bring in, according to the agriculture specialists. The mistakes passengers make can usually be a learning experience.

"Most people don't know why cooked pork isn't okay to bring in, but cooked chicken is," he added. "It all has to do with how diseases can be transferred." Some foreign animal diseases can be spread by raw or cooked meat products. Preventing these can help avoid a loss in the nation's meat supply sources. (For example, see… about African swine fever.)

The dogs are trained to find the items that can bring diseases in, even if they are vacuum-sealed. Dogs smell in layers and they will find what they are taught to search for; for example, people will try to disguise something like a mango in coffee, but these dogs will still find the mango.

Because these dogs are on 10-hour workdays and are constantly smelling what's around them, they require breaks to let their noses stop for a while. They will take them to a quiet room and continue to work without them while a different dog sniffs the bags. The dogs are housed in a kennel overnight to keep them from overworking or becoming overwhelmed and to give them a chance to rest quietly.

Many of the dogs in the brigade will work for about five years and when they are done working, the handler can adopt the dog. Others that are retiring, as well as dogs that fail the training, are put up for adoption through the USDA. Some who don't work to be part of the brigade are successful in other training programs.

Nearly 170 dogs are currently working through the service, and more are being trained.

"We know these dogs won't work forever, but they definitely become a large part of our lives," Brudnicki said. "When Pip retires, he will then get to come home with me."

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Jennifer Carrico