By Maria José Subiria
The wet nose of a beagle named Button recently led a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agriculture specialist canine enforcement officer to a suitcase at the world's busiest airport. Button sat down next to the suitcase and indicated to her handler that the luggage contained prohibited agricultural items.
"Show it to me," the handler commanded.
Button obeyed the command by placing her furry paw on the suitcase and barked and wagged her tail while waiting to be rewarded with a treat. The demonstration was part of a recent training exercise at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
Button is part of the Customs and Border Protection Agriculture Canine Program and the Plant Protection and Quarantine program of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She belongs to one of numerous teams that work on concourse E, also known as the international terminal, at Hartsfield-Jackson.
"The CBP (Customs and Border Protection) Agriculture Canine Program utilizes detector dogs to locate fruits, vegetables, meats or other prohibited items that may carry pests or diseases that could harm U.S. agricultural resources," said Scott Sams, a spokesperson for Customs and Border Protection at Hartsfield-Jackson. "The CBP Agricultural Specialist Canine teams seize thousands of types of prohibited plant material and animal products every year. Agriculture specialists in the canine program are an integral part in the fulfillment of the CBP mission to protect American agriculture."
According to James Mason, a training specialist for the USDA National Detector Dog Training Center, beagles that belong to the Customs and Border Protection Agriculture Canine Program - also known as the "Beagle Brigade" - are trained to recognize five distinct odors: apples, citrus, mangos, beef and pork. The hazards the agricultural items may cause depend on the sorts of diseases or pests they contain.
"For instance, citrus can carry Mediterranean fruit [flies], which can cause millions of dollars of damage to citrus crops," Mason said. "Improperly cooked beef and pork may carry diseases, such as foot-and-mouth disease."
At Hartsfield-Jackson, the Beagle Brigade is responsible for searching luggage at the baggage carousels, and the carry-on bags of passengers waiting in line to enter the United States at the international terminal, said Sams. The Beagle Brigade has been operating at Hartsfield-Jackson since 1984.
Mason said the beagles begin training between the ages of one and three years old at the new USDA National Detector Dog Training Center in Newnan. For five weeks, the beagles are trained on the five basic odors, then get an additional 10 weeks of training with their prospective handlers, according to Mason.
There is only one USDA National Detector Dog Training Center in the country, which relocated to Newnan from Orlando, Fla., in April 2009, according to the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service's web site.
"The center relocated due to space requirements and the number of international flights," said Mason. "The new training center has a carousel, postal belts, covered vehicle lots and has many 'green' features to it."
In order to join the brigade, the beagles must be sociable, trainable and have a high interest in food, explained Mason.
"Teams are located through out the U.S., primarily at international airports, seaports, land border ports of entry and international mail facilities," said Mason.
According to Customs and Border Protection and USDA officials, there are approximately 115 teams that are part of the Customs and Border Protection Agriculture Canine Program in the United States, which include different breeds of dogs
"Labrador retrievers are also trained for agriculture detection in warehouses and at international borders," said Mason.
The Beagle Brigade is composed of several teams per location, officials said. The teams train on a daily basis during their work day, and participate in formal training once per week. The beagles work eight hours a day, five days a week, and are required to wear Customs and Border Protection vests and badges.
Mason said beagles normally retire at nine years of age.
"The handler usually adopts the canine. If that isn't possible, the canine returns to the center [training center] where he will stay, until adopted," Mason said.