Detection dogs show promise in sniffing out pests

02/10/2012 03:02:00 PM
By Jerry Jackson

Scientists have yet to invent a smell detector as sensitive and practical as a dog’s wet nose.

So researchers have turned to man’s best friend for a little help in sniffing out pests, such as citrus canker, that are difficult or impossible to spot in the field.

Even the best trained human scouts looking for signs of canker on leaves, stems or fruit in trees are no match for canines and their ability to pick up the faintest of scents.

Humans have been relying on dogs for many years to find lost people, track escaped convicts, detect narcotics or contraband, trail deer and other animals for hunters. Their feats of odor detection have amazed people for millennia.

In more recent years, dogs have been recruited to sniff out termites, bedbugs, mealybugs, gypsy moth larvae, screw worms and other agricultural pests.

Now add citrus canker to the list, and, most likely, citrus greening, says Tim Gottwald, a senior scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Horticultural Research Laboratory in Fort Pierce. Gottwald received a $50,000 grant to oversee a feasibility study for canine canker detection.

Although the research is still underway, he says the early evidence supports the concept.

“We’ve found them to be 97 to 99 percent accurate detecting canker in fields with randomized, potted trees in the ground— tests at various levels of canker,” Gottwald says. “They miss very few. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised,” he notes, based on the long history of dogs and their well-documented olfactory powers.

USDA research into canine canker detection began as early as 1999, but the work was interrupted when the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks shifted priorities nationwide. Security at airports, seaports and other locations took precedence, and every dog that could be drafted for the effort was rushed into service.

Now that the citrus research has resumed as a result of the USDA grant in 2010, a trio of dogs has been undergoing training and testing in a variety of settings at a citrus research site in north Florida and in Fort Pierce.

The dogs participating in the research are owned by J&K Canine Academy, a nationally recognized pest-detection and behavioral training school in Alachua County near Gainesville.

The University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences worked with J&K Canine Academy in the 1990s to develop teams of termite-detection dogs, capable of locating subterranean termites and other hard-tofind types.

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