Instinct may lead dogs to detect animals, but the Beagles’ agricultural finds require extensive and ongoing training on how to—and how not to—use their powerful noses. Beagles undergo 10 to 13 weeks of training at the National Detector Dog Training Center in Orlando, Fla., depending on whether they are intended to clear international travelers or vehicles, ships, containers and palletized materials. For the 40 to 46 teams the center trains each year, the center’s staff “may look at anywhere from five to 15 dogs to find one good candidate,” says Director Mike Smith.
Likely candidates—who must be between one and three years old and are not necessarily purebred—are often found in animal shelters, but also come from private owners and breeders. The right dog is outgoing, with a serious interest in food.
Dogs begin by learning to distinguish five key scents: mango, apple, citrus, pork and beef. The dogs receive food rewards for passively sitting when they locate target items hidden in loose cardboard boxes. As the Beagles’ skills improve, targets are placed in first soft, then hard suitcases and typical tourist items are added to the bags to simulate real airport situations.
“They start adding other foods commonly carried by passengers to make sure [the Beagles] are bypassing chocolate, candy, crackers, peanut butter,” says Kennedy. “Products like apricot shampoo and coconut hand creams are added, too, to make sure that the dog is being very specific about whether he smells a fresh mango or mango shampoo.”
Not every candidate will make the grade. “Some dogs are just not as intelligent as we had thought; their food drive may be really high, but they just can’t grasp what is requested of them,” says Smith. Other dogs cannot concentrate amidst the commotion of the typical work environment, or may turn out to have a preexisting medical condition, such as hip dysplasia, that will keep them from working comfortably. All dogs, whether retired or flunked, are found homes through the center’s popular adoption program.
Once on the job, Beagles spend four hours a week training “to keep them sharp” and work on any problem areas, according to Silverio. After six months, Beagles sniff out prohibited material correctly 80 percent of the time. Their success rate rises to about 90 percent with two years’ experience, and some Beagles have been known to recognize nearly 50 odors during their five- to seven-year careers.
And while spectacular beagle busts—such as pounds and pounds of fresh fruit—make for great photo opportunities, Kennedy says Lily’s most impressive find was a single chestnut.
“It’s one thing for Lily to find a bag of fresh chestnuts, but it’s another to find one chestnut in a pocket when someone has a winter coat on over it,” says Kennedy. “I think that’s much more significant to find one tiny smell when there are so many other smells floating around.”
This ability is what makes dogs much more effective than machines for odor detection, says Dr. Larry Myers, a professor of veterinary medicine at Alabama’s Auburn University and researcher at the school’s Institute for Biological Systems Detection.
“There are instruments that are certainly more sensitive than a dog is,” says Myers. “But dogs sample the air better, and they do it in what amounts to real-time. In a matter of a second or less, they can say, ‘Yep, it’s there.’”
“I don’t want to make it out like dogs are magic: they’re not,” continues Myers. “But they are really pretty impressive. If there is a single chemical, or a ratio of chemicals, unique or pretty close to unique to a target, dogs can be trained to detect it. So take your drugs, your bombs, your off-flavor catfish, your termites—dogs can detect all of them.”
The program may eventually expand its reach. The National Detector Dog Training Center has been experimenting with teaching Beagles to pinpoint specific agricultural hazards—such as invasive knapweed in rangelands, Asian longhorn beetles in palletized materials and citrus canker-infected plants within an orchard. With talent like that, the Beagle Brigade —hard-working hounds with curious noses—will not be disbanding any time soon!