Just when I was thinking if it is possible to train my dog Lola to “detect” aphids on our backyard apple tree, I learn that dogs trained at Florida International University have a leg up on us. The Florida researchers looked at using “the highly sensitive canine olfactory system that is capable of detecting odor concentrations at exceedingly minute 1 to 2 parts per trillion” to help in early detection work to find the red-bay ambrosia beetle, a nonnative insect that was introduced from Asia in untreated wooden packing material. That transplant beetle is responsible for the spread of “laurel wilt” that is decimating avocado groves in Florida.
The authors believed it likely, with properly directed training, that these dogs could use their natural talents to service the protective needs of the ailing avocado industry. In a paper published in the American Society for Horticultural Science they detailed how during the course of the study, the three canines, one Belgian Malinois and two Dutch Shepherds, were trained to detect the onset of this disease, and then to alert by sitting in front of the infected tree. They certainly aced their tests, and performed 229 trials and only 12 of those yielded false alerts.
As DeEtta Mills, one of the researchers noted, about the valuable service provided by these dogs, “It is the best ‘technology’ so far that can detect a diseased tree before external symptoms are visible. The old saying that ‘dogs are man’s best friend' reaches far beyond a personal bond with their handler and trainer. It is depicted in their excitement every day as they deploy to the groves. Man’s best friend may even help save an industry.”