Feb 3, 2022PPQ-trained detector dogs track down lanternflies and beetles
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.”
Training for Dogs and Handlers
Deploying Dogs in the Field in North Carolina
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.
Creating a new training program
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.
Deploying in Oregon for the pilot project
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.”