As we discussed in previous installments, scent-detection dogs are commonly utilized to seek out noxious plant species across various landscapes.  Lately, these seek and destroy canine missions have become a critical component of the war against invasive species around the world.  Not only do dogs find these alien invaders once released into our wildlands, but now they also have become a major player in preventing the spread of noxious plants, animals, and even pathogens before they arrive at suitable habitat.

Preventing the arrival of noxious biologics became so important that in 1999 the United States began the National Invasive Species Council, an inter-departmental effort to best control existing and prevent new invasive species from gaining a foothold on US soil.  Studies show that alien intruders cost the US around $120 billion each year in damage to our ecosystem and economy, so a coordinated effort is paramount to fend off this destructive force.  The most efficient location to intercept alien species is at ports of entry such as airports and ship docks, where both people and goods from various parts of the world arrive.  But how could we possibly search every person and container entering the country?  Once again, our canine friends come to our rescue!

Numerous US agencies, including Customs and Border Protection, Department of Agriculture, and Fish and Wildlife Service, use teams of trained scent-detection dogs to quickly and efficiently scan as many people and goods as possible that arrive at our borders.  The most famous of these teams is the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s “Beagle Brigade”, which scan luggage in all international airports for incoming threats.  The brigade’s effectiveness is undisputed—averaging 75,000 seizures each year of prohibited agricultural products, such as unauthorized meat or fruits and vegetables carrying invasive pests or disease.

Beagles were originally bred to seek out rabbits through scent, so they possess very acute smelling abilities, plus they typically remain friendly around people while their small stature is non-threatening, making their breed a perfect fit to mingle through crowded airports.  Not only can beagles sniff the contents of luggage and containers, but they also can categorize 50 distinct odors, effectively determining if the contents are a potential threat.  If so, the beagle alerts the handler by sitting.  The hander then questions the luggage owner and performs a manual search if warranted.  Currently, there are over 60 Beagle Brigade teams finding potential threats among luggage in every major airport.  Nationwide, these teams boast a 90% success rate in eliminating noxious threats from invading our borders.

Another great aspect of the Beagle Brigade is that all canine members are recruited from shelters or donated by private individuals.  Those who do not pass the training phase are then adopted out to suitable homes, while the successful team members serve on duty for 6-10 years then are usually adopted by their handlers upon retirement.  No beagle is ever returned to a shelter.

Most travelers assume search dogs moving through airports are seeking out bombs or illegal drugs, but many dog teams are looking for much more than those isolated dangers, they are seeking out threats to our ecosystem as well.  So next time you see a Beagle Brigade team in an airport thank them for protecting our habitat.  Without their dedicated work, our ecosystem would be bombarded with noxious invaders that eventually could destroy our way of life.

Thank you, Beagle Brigade!

Jeremy Heft, Wildlife Biologist & Sanctuary Consultant
Wolf Education & Research Center – Idaho

For further information, or to support the Beagle Brigade:

National Invasive Species Information Center
Don’t Pack a Pest
USDA’s National Detector Dog Training Center