United States Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Agriculture Canine (K9) Hardy captured America’s heart when he discovered a 2 lb. cooked pig in checked luggage at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Not long before that, one of his canine pals found pork sausages in canisters of baby formula at Washington Dulles International Airport.
Sound a little crazy to you? Kevin Harriger, executive director for agriculture programs and trade liaison with CBP, says these stories are anything but unusual.
“People will go to great lengths to bring in something they want,” Harriger says. “Most people don’t make the nexus between epidemiology and the spread of a foreign animal disease. They think if they want ham, they’ll bring ham into the U.S. with them. It’s that simple to them.”
However, bringing agricultural products across the U.S. border without properly identifying them is illegal. It is one of the greatest threats to the United States’ efforts to stop the spread of foreign animal diseases (FADs) from entering the U.S. Working dogs provide an additional tool in detection of these prohibited agricultural items.
Brave Beagles Go To Battle for U.S. Agriculture
In 1979, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched its first K9 pilot program with large dog breeds such as Labradors. In 1984, the first teams using beagles were trained.
Harriger says beagles are the breed of choice for the agriculture mission due to their non-threatening appearance and kind nature, as well as their high drive for food, which is their reward. Beagles were selected for use in the air and cruise line passenger environments to enhance CBP’s layered approach to safeguard the nation from invasive plant pests and FADs.
The beagles’ keen sense of smell is extremely effective in detecting agricultural products, he says. The Beagle Brigade is also used as an outreach and education tool providing pertinent information regarding entry of agricultural products while simultaneously indicating the risks presented to American agriculture from invasive pests and diseases.
“Beagles are extremely docile and were selected for that trait,” he says. “Large breed dogs are used in cargo and land border passenger operations due to their innate resilience in harsher environments.”
Today, CBP has 114 K9 teams, including 84 beagle teams and 30 large breed teams, stationed throughout the country in all major international airports.
“The beagles are an extremely valuable asset,” Harriger says. “They are beloved because they want to serve. It’s truly a partnership between the dog and the handler.”
Rigorous Training for Rescued Dogs
USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and the National Detector Dog Training Center (NDDTC) procures and trains the K9s and the CBP K9 agriculture specialist handlers. The program uses rescued and donated dogs that pass initial screenings for age, temperament and drive. The dogs are then trained at NDDTC in Newnan, Ga., in a state-of-the art and certified green facility where they receive specific training for target odors in CBP’s different working environments, including pork, beef, apple, mango, and citrus.
The initial team training takes 10 weeks for beagle teams working in passenger environments and 13 weeks for teams in the border and cargo environments, Harriger says. Training continues throughout the team’s career reinforcing their skills and adding target odors of interest unique to their home ports. Some handlers say their K9s can detect up to 150 odors.
“We have training every two weeks to keep dogs interested,” he says. “We work hard to make sure it doesn’t get monotonous and build new odor training into the program.”
In addition, the dogs are trained that there are some odors they should not “hit” on – these are called non-targets. Processed foods, candy, perfumes and toiletries may cause the K9s to alert, but once the handler identifies the item is not of agricultural interest, the K9 is not rewarded and will not respond on that item again. The periodic K9 training exercises reinforce the correct target and non-target responses learned at NDDTC.
You can’t have a successful K9 team without a good dog handler. The handlers are CBP agriculture specialists who have expressed interest in working with the dogs. Prior to becoming a K9 handler, they have received extensive training and gained experience in the biological sciences and in agricultural inspection.
On a typical day nationally, the K9 teams inspect more than 1 million people as well as air and sea cargo imported to the U.S. and intercept 352 pests at U.S. ports of entry and 4,638 materials for quarantine: plant, meat, animal byproduct and soil.
“Just like the dogs, the handlers have to meet some prerequisites,” Harriger says. “We don’t grow them, they step up and decide that it’s something they want to do. The dog handlers need to have good interpersonal skills and the ability to communicate with the public.”
Creating a positive experience with the travelling public, especially children, encourages compliance with agriculture regulations at U.S. ports of entry. The teams help people understand what the dogs are trying to do to protect the country.
“The teams interact with people every day,” he says. “They hand out comic books and trading cards that feature the beagle with his or her stats, including name, favorite odors, training site, etc.”
First Defense Against Foreign Animal Disease
Although it is very difficult to help every traveler understand the consequences of FADs hitting U.S. soil, the K9 teams give it their best shot.
“We are not the judge and jury,” Harriger says. “But it’s up to our team to keep plant and animal diseases out of the United States. And with African swine fever, for example, the virus can manifest itself in meat or refuse. If it doesn’t go through a sanitary system or get destroyed through an incineration or steam sterilization process, we’ve got live virus in the U.S. People don’t understand how serious this really is – it just sounds really science-geeky.”
The U.S. prevents any pork and pork products from other countries from entering the country to prevent the introduction of FADs such as African swine fever, foot-and-mouth disease and classical swine fever. However, regulations and permits are in place to allow some agricultural products to enter the U.S. – but smuggling pork sausages in infant formula cans is definitely not permitted.
“We have a layered approach about how we try keep problems out,” he says. “We are on the lookout for prior offenders, flights with higher broach rates, flights with high numbers of passengers, and of course, looking at the items they declared.”
For Harriger, working with the Beagle Brigade is one of the best aspects of his job. He oversees 2,500 agriculture specialists and 114 teams guarding the U.S. ports of entry by administering the regulations and laws that USDA-APHIS sets forward.
“I’m still so enamored with the beagles,” Harriger says. “I think they are the best thing in the world.”
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