By Greg Rosenthal
They’re coming to get you, spotted lanternflies and Japanese beetles! Detector canines—trained by USDA's Plant Protection and Quarantine (PPQ) program—are ready to sniff out these damaging invasive pests to detect them early and prevent their spread.
These highly trained dogs represent some of the recent successes of our Agricultural Detector Canines strategic initiative. Its goal is to expand the use of detector dogs to enhance domestic pest surveys, detect pests early, and facilitate the trade of U.S. agricultural products.
The North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (NCDA&CS) took note when the spotted lanternfly (SLF) was detected just north of their State in Virginia. SLF is an invasive plant hopper from China. It feeds on more than 70 types of plants, including crops like apples, grapes, hops, and stone fruits, as well as hardwood trees. While SLF’s highly preferred host is the tree of heaven, vineyards have been the most adversely affected agricultural commodity so far.
“The State wanted to use canines to help keep the pest out, so NCDA&CS sought funds and assistance from PPQ through a cooperative agreement for more than $200,000,” said National Operations Manager Betsy Randall-Schadel. “Things moved pretty quickly because NCDA&CS made the commitment to fund the salaries of the canine handlers.”
Normally, detector dogs and their handlers attend an 8-week course at PPQ’s National Detector Dog Training Center (NDDTC) in Newnan, GA, before transitioning to the field. But the SLF project was different.
“North of the North Carolina border, Virginia has a few SLF infestations, including one in Winchester, and that was a fantastic opportunity for training in the environment,” said NDDTC Training Specialist David Jones, who trained the dogs and their handlers and helped deploy them in the field. “Instead of hosting the entire 8-week course at the center, we traveled to Winchester for the last 4 weeks to train the dogs in the field where they could find plenty of fresh SLF egg masses.”
That’s just what the dogs did. They found egg masses around known SLF pathways associated with railroads and trucking. While SLF adults can hitch a ride, the potential movement of egg masses on trains or trucks can cause SLF to spread long distances. Prime survey spots for the canines were next to rail lines or tractor trailer parking areas.
“The dogs got a little bit confused in Virginia at first when they transitioned from the center, where they used deactivated egg masses, which were frozen to minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit and then thawed,” Jones said. “In Virginia, they were detecting fresh egg masses. We had to help the dogs. At first, they needed to be on top of an egg mass to smell it, but soon they were detecting the scent from across a parking lot and pulling us to the target.”
Jones took the NCDA&CS canine handlers and their dogs to the field in North Carolina for “installation training,” which means ensuring a smooth and effective deployment to real-world conditions. Jackie Fredieu and her Labrador retriever Kita worked in the Raleigh area, and Chad Taylor and his Lab Neeko worked in Boone.
“We were lucky because the weather was mild at that time in both Raleigh and Boone,” Jones said. “The dogs’ missions were very different in each location. In Raleigh, Jackie and Kita focused on nursery stock. In Boone, which is a beautiful city in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Chad and Neeko surveyed vineyards and Christmas tree farms. Fortunately, neither dog has found SLF to date.”
The dogs will also search for SLFs at a truck stop in Virginia 15 miles north of the State line to check trucks, trailers, and timber cargo for signs of the pest. “This is a new line of defense for North Carolina, and it also helps safeguard Virginia against further spread,” said NDDTC Supervisory Training Specialist Aaron Beaumont. “It’s best to keep SLF out rather than fight it once it gets in. This sharing of canine resources also shows the extraordinary cooperation among the North Carolina and Virginia agriculture departments and PPQ’s State Plant Health Directors Joe Beckwith in North Carolina and Karen Williams in Virginia.”
Funding for this project came from the $3 million that Congress appropriated to PPQ to develop canine tools in States for pests of State concern. “This appropriation shows strong congressional support for PPQ’s Agricultural Detector Canines strategic initiative,” noted Field Operations Associate Deputy Administrator Carlos Martinez, who is co-executive champion for the initiative with Emergency and Domestic Programs Associate Deputy Administrator Samantha Simon.
PPQ’s Agricultural Detector Canine Utilization Cross Functional Working Group evaluated several possible pests that could receive this congressional funding. Japanese beetle (JB) looked like a good candidate. Oregon has a number of State quarantines for JB in the Portland area. The State is working on eradicating these populations and wanted to see whether detector dogs could be an effective tool in the fight.
The JBis a destructive plant pest that can be very difficult and expensive to control. Its larvae damage lawns, golf courses, and pastures by feeding on grass roots. The adults attack the foliage, flowers, or fruits of more than 300 different ornamental and agricultural plants. PPQ set up a collaborative pilot project with the Oregon Department of Agriculture to assess the effectiveness of detector dogs in finding JB larvae.
The first challenge for our NDDTC was finding Japanese beetle larvae to use as “training aids” with the dogs. The training began in August, but in September JB larvae were nowhere to be found in Georgia.
“Dr. Jason Oliver at Tennessee State University saved the day by providing more than 700 Japanese beetle larvae—sent under a PPQ interstate movement permit—and instruction on how to correctly identify the larvae,” said NDDTC’s PPQ Canine Officer Josh Moose. “Because this was a pilot program, we had to build it from scratch. That meant obtaining the larvae, determining what medium and temperature were optimal for their survival, finding a dog, creating a training plan, and training the dog. We were surprised to learn that if you put too many larvae into a container of soil, they start eating each other.”PPQ took the lead for all training activities, with Moose and his colleague Jennifer Taylor training the center’s black Lab, Bradley.
Moose and Bradley deployed to Oregon from late November to mid-December. “We had good weather for the first week and got a lot accomplished,” Moose said. “But then it became very cold and poured each day. That was unfortunate because the moisture suppresses the molecules the dogs are trying to detect, and the Japanese beetle larvae move deeper into the soil to avoid the cold and water.”
Still, Moose and Bradley were able to prove the concept of a detector dog finding JB larvae. Moose used live grubs as his training aids, ensuring they were shipped to Oregon from Tennessee and Georgia under PPQ interstate permits. He placed them in special metal mesh cylinders he fabricated with the assistance and expertise of Jose Hinojosa, PPQ’s Supervisory Equipment Specialist. The cylinders allow Bradley to smell the larvae while preventing the larvae from escaping.
Bradley found all the live grub training aids—even in heavy rain. Moose also took Bradley to farms, parks, residential areas, and the Oregon Zoo. They couldn’t search some areas they encountered because of drug needles or broken glass strewn about, or nearby homeless encampments. “I won’t put a dog or myself into any danger,” Moose said.
He noted how much he enjoyed working with everyone he met during his deployment. “It was great to collaborate with the Oregon Department of Agriculture because they really understood the importance of this pilot project,” he said. “Everyone I met told me they wanted to do everything they could to combat these beetles. We visited a blueberry grower who calls himself ‘Farmer John,’ a turf farmer, and a homeowner, and they were all happy to have Bradley sniff around their properties. The experience was a real pleasure, with encouraging results.”