Detection dogs show promise in sniffing out pests

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

Private pest control companies have since incorporated canines into their home and property inspection programs. More recently, J&K Canine Academy trainers have been busy teaching dogs to find bedbugs, as those tiny pests have become a recurrent problem in hotels and homes.

Technique worked ‘quite well.’

In California, family-owned Honig Vineyard and Winery proved that trained dogs could reliably detect mealybugs in vineyards even when the tiny pests could not be seen. Dogs picked up the scent of mealybug pheromones on individual vines, giving vineyard managers a tool for fine tuning their pest control, says Michael Honig.

“It worked quite well,” he says, as long as the amount of acreage covered by the dogs at any given time was limited. “They get tired if you try to cover hundreds of acres,” and accuracy declines.

As mealybug control in Napa Valley has improved significantly in recent years, Honig says the vineyard dog patrol is no longer used.

Dogs on patrol

In the Florida field tests, researchers have been transporting the dogs in training with commonly used grove vehicles, moving slowly through the rows while the canines sniff the air.

Citrus growers and industry leaders are searching for ways to survive the constant pressure from the spread of canker and greening, also known as huanglongbing or HLB.

If pest detector dogs eventually move from the laboratory and testing to actual field work, assisting humans as they scout the groves, “that would be wonderful,” says Donna Garren, executive director of the Florida Gift Fruit Shippers Association, based in Orlando.

“It would be an all natural method” of early pest detection, says Garren, whose association members ship more than 9.5 million pounds of fresh grapefruit, navels and other varieties annually during the winter holiday season.

Challenges remain

Vero Beach citrus grower Louis Schacht, one of 38 grower-members of the gift-fruit shippers association, also applauds the canine research but remains skeptical about whether the concept will ever prove to be practical on a large scale.

“You would need a lot of dogs” to cover even a fraction of Florida’s more than 540,000 acres of citrus trees, he says.

Schacht says he and neighboring citrus growers already coordinate their pest control efforts and probably would consider pooling resources to pay for a pest-detector dog if they became commercially available and widely used.

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