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Detector dogs track lanterns and beetles

They’re coming for you, mottled lanterns and Japanese beetles! Detector dogs — trained by the USDA’s Plant Protection and Quarantine Program (PPQ) — are ready to sniff out these harmful invasive pests to catch them early and prevent their spread.

These highly trained dogs represent some of the recent successes of our strategic agricultural detector dog initiative. Its goal is to expand the use of detector dogs to improve national pest surveys, detect pests early, and facilitate trade in American agricultural products.

Spotted Lantern Fly

The North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (NCDA&CS) took notice when the Spotted Lantern Fly (SLF) was detected just north of their state in Virginia. SLF is an invasive plant hopper from China. It feeds on over 70 types of plants, including crops like apples, grapes, hops, and stone fruits, as well as leafy trees. While the preferred host of SLF is the tree of heaven, the vine has so far been the most affected agricultural product.

“The state wanted to use canines to help keep the pest out, so NCDA&CS approached PPQ for funds and assistance through a cooperative agreement for over $200,000,” says Betsy Randall-Schadel, national operations manager. “Things moved pretty quickly as NCDA&CS made a commitment to fund handler salaries.”

Normally, detector dogs and their handlers complete an eight-week course at PPQ’s National Detector Dog Training Center (NDDTC) in Newnan, Georgia, before moving into the field. But the SLF project was different.

“North of the North Carolina border, Virginia has a few SLF infestations, including one in Winchester, and it was a fantastic opportunity to train in the environment,” says training specialist David Jones. of the NDDTC, who trained the dogs and their handlers and helped deploy them in the field. “Instead of hosting the entire 8 week course at the centre, we traveled to Winchester for the last 4 weeks to train the dogs in the field where they could find plenty of fresh SLF egg masses.”

That’s exactly what the dogs did. They found egg masses around known SLF tracks associated with railroads and trucking. While SLF adults may hitchhike, the potential movement of egg masses in trains or trucks can cause SLF to spread over long distances. The main survey sites for the dogs were next to railroad tracks or tractor-trailer parking areas.

“Dogs were initially a little confused in Virginia when they moved from the center, where they used deactivated egg masses, which were frozen at minus 80° and then thawed,” Jones says. “In Virginia, they were detecting masses of fresh eggs. We had to help the dogs. At first, they had to be above an egg mass to smell it, but soon they detected the smell of the egg. across a parking lot and pulled us towards the target.

Jones took NCDA & CS handlers and their dogs to the field in North Carolina for “installation training,” which means ensuring a smooth and efficient deployment under real-world conditions. Jackie Fredieu and his Labrador retriever Kita worked in the Raleigh area, and Chad Taylor and his Lab Neeko worked in Boone.

“We were lucky because the weather was mild at that time in Raleigh and Boone,” says Jones. “The missions of the dogs were very different from place to place. In Raleigh, Jackie and Kita focused on nursery stock. In Boone, which is a beautiful town in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Chad and Neeko surveyed vineyards and Christmas tree farms. Fortunately, no dogs have found SLF to date.

Dogs will also search for SLFs at a truck stop in Virginia 15 miles north of the state line to check trucks, trailers and lumber shipments for signs of the pest. “This is a new line of defense for North Carolina, and it also helps protect Virginia from further spread,” says NDDTC supervisory training specialist Aaron Beaumont. “It’s better to keep the SLF out than to fight it once it’s in. This sharing of canine resources also shows the extraordinary cooperation between the North Carolina and Virginia Departments of Agriculture and PPQ State Plant Health Directors Joe Beckwith in North Carolina and Karen Williams in Virginia. .”

Funding for this project came from the $3 million that Congress appropriated for the PPQ to develop canine tools in the states for pests of state concern. “This appropriation shows strong congressional support for PPQ’s strategic agricultural sensor initiative,” noted Associate Assistant Administrator of Field Operations Carlos Martinez, who is co-executive champion of the initiative with Administrator Deputy Assistant for Emergency and Domestic Programs Samantha Simon.

Detector dog Bradley takes a break from searching for Japanese beetle larvae at the Oregon Zoo.

japanese beetle

The PPQ’s Cross-Functional Working Group on Canine Use of Agricultural Sensors has evaluated several possible pests that could receive this Congressional funding. The Japanese beetle (JB) seemed like a good candidate. Oregon has a number of state quarantines for JB in the Portland area. The state is working to eradicate these populations and wanted to see if detector dogs could be an effective tool in the fight.

The Japanese beetle is a destructive pest that can be very difficult and expensive to control. Its larvae damage lawns, golf courses and pastures by feeding on grass roots. The adults attack the foliage, flowers or fruits of more than 300 different ornamental and agricultural plants. The PPQ set up a pilot project in collaboration with the Oregon Department of Agriculture to evaluate the effectiveness of detector dogs in detecting JB larvae.

The first challenge for the NDDTC was to find Japanese beetle larvae to use as “training aids” with the dogs. Formation began in August, but by September JB larvae were nowhere to be found in Georgia.

Dog photo: USDA; Japanese beetles: Arthur Miller, Bugwood.org

“Dr. Jason Oliver of Tennessee State University saved the day by providing over 700 Japanese beetle larvae, sent under a PPQ interstate movement permit, and instructions on how to properly identify the larvae,” says Josh Moose , NDDTC PPQ Canine Officer “As this was a pilot program, we had to create it from scratch. This meant getting the larvae, determining what environment and temperature were optimal for them to survive, finding a dog , create a training plan and train the dog.We were surprised to learn that if you put too many larvae in a container of soil, they start eating each other.

PPQ took the lead in all training activities, with Moose and his colleague Jennifer Taylor forming the center’s black lab, Bradley.

Moose and Bradley deployed to Oregon from late November to mid-December. “We had great weather the first week and we accomplished a lot,” said Moose. “But then it got very cold and it was raining every day. This was unfortunate because the humidity suppresses the molecules the dogs try to detect, and the Japanese beetle larvae burrow deeper into the ground to avoid cold and water.

Still, Moose and Bradley were able to prove the concept of a detector dog finding JB larvae. Moose used live larvae as training aids, ensuring they were shipped to Oregon from Tennessee and Georgia under interstate PPQ permits. He placed them in special wire-mesh cylinders that he fabricated with the help and expertise of Jose Hinojosa, PPQ’s supervisory equipment specialist. The cylinders allow Bradley to smell the larvae while preventing the larvae from escaping.

Bradley found all the training aids live, even in the pouring rain. Moose also took Bradley to farms, parks, residential areas and the Oregon Zoo. They were unable to search some areas they encountered because of drug needles or broken glass strewn about, or homeless encampments nearby. “I won’t put a dog or myself in danger,” Moose says.

He notes how much he enjoyed working with everyone he met during his deployment. “It was great working with the Oregon Department of Agriculture because they really understood the importance of this pilot project,” he says. “Everyone I met told me they wanted to do whatever they could to control these beetles. We visited a blueberry grower who calls himself ‘Farmer John’, a grower of grass and a landlord, and they were all happy to have Bradley sniffing around their properties.The experience was a real pleasure, with encouraging results.

This article has been republished with permission from USDA-APHIS.