In addition to using dogs to search for people and drugs, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agency (CBP) uses dogs that are specially trained by the USDA to detect agricultural pests and diseases.
The Underappreciated Role of Agricultural Inspector Dogs
While detecting fruit may not give the adrenaline rush that comes with apprehending drug smugglers, doing so can play a critical role in protecting U.S. agriculture. A single introduction of a pest or disease can spread to wipe out entire industries. For instance, the citrus industry in Florida has been devastated by citrus greening disease, carried by the Asian citrus psyllid—a small, seemingly insignificant insect. Agricultural officials in California are on heightened alert, since this insect has been discovered in the state.
Agricultural inspector dogs have been highly trained through a reward program to detect fruit such as apples and guava, flowers, and even live fish. One instance of canine detection was in 2009 when a Labrador retriever named Tassie found an unlabeled parcel of curry leaves and guavas in Southern California that carried Asian citrus psyllids.
Border Patrol dogs work at both the southern and northern land border stations. They inspect pedestrians, buses, and vehicles. In addition, they work in mail distribution centers discovering agricultural products in unlabeled packages. There are also teams at international seaports and airports where they inspect cargo.
The Beagle Brigade
First used by the Mexican government, the United States pioneered its use of dogs to detect agricultural products with a single beagle at the international airport in Los Angeles in 1984. The success of this program led to its expansion. The USDA deployed beagle brigades at land border crossings in several cities in Texas in 1997. Since 9/11, these dogs have been deployed by the CBP instead of the USDA.
Beagles were chosen, because dogs that interacted well with the public were needed. This breed is usually considered highly non-threatening and is generally beloved by the public. They also had the advantage of being able to search close spaces that could not be accessed by larger dogs.
Over time, customs officials switched to larger breeds of dogs that could better handle the stresses of searching larger cargo like those on pallets. Currently, rescued Labrador retrievers are being trained to carry out these tasks.
Unlike most canine units, these dogs do not live with their handlers, since they would attack food and plants in the household.