By Dr. Lonnie King
Several years ago, a skinny, beat up, socially neglected and badly injured beagle was found wondering along a Georgia highway. He was picked up and transported to a local humane society where he began to be properly cared for and start a long road to recovery. He was about 3 years old and was missing part of his tail and half of one of his ears. They named him Murray. It was likely that his injuries and appearance would prevent him from adoption. Murray was quite timid and afraid of almost everything but eager for love and attention. In addition to his care at the humane society, Murray was also fostered by some kind folks who thought that he needed a second chance. He was socialized and received veterinary care and the loving care of his foster parents. As Murray continued his recovery to health, people noticed that he was special; he had renewed energy, a great nose and was highly food motivated. With these qualities, he was a wonderful candidate to be considered for further training to take advantage of his remarkable traits and, hopefully, to introduce him into an environment in which he could flourish and lead a transformed and meaningful life.
Murray was a perfect candidate to become a detection dog. He was introduced into the National Detector Dog Training Center (NDDTC) located in Newnan, Georgia. This facility is operated by the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. The NDDTC provides highly specialized training for agricultural detector dog teams tasked with safeguarding American agriculture and natural resources from harmful pests and diseases that could enter this country from overseas. The training begins with 2 weeks of screening to evaluate the temperament, behavior, health and food drive of the dogs. Murray passed with flying colors and his life and future were about to drastically change for the better. After about 4 more months of special training, Murray became a member of the “Beagle Brigade”. Now with renewed spirit, energy and a special purpose, he is sniffing luggage and carry-on bags for illegal contraband associated with passengers as they arrived at our international airports from all over the world. The Beagle Brigade started in 1984 and use beagles and beagle-crosses to sniff out and identify fruits, vegetables, pests and animal products that could attack and destroy important agricultural crops, livestock, poultry and forests if allowed to enter our country.
Murray was assigned to Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport where he works today. These dogs are readily accepted by passengers because they are cute, small and not intimidating. You may have seen Murray or other members of the Beagle Brigade wearing their green jackets, tails wagging and with a sense of urgency, sniffing luggage and bags in hopes of finding illegal contraband and then receiving the praise and treats from their handlers that they seek as rewards. For Murray, it is a of game of hide and seek that he thrives on; however, for U.S agriculture, it is a serious and deadly game of protecting our agriculture and food supply.
The dogs work with trainers for 10-14 weeks and are also teamed with their permanent handlers as part of the next level of training. Additionally, the dogs are also evaluated to make certain that they can tolerate the noise and the busy and bustling environments of a large airport. If they pass the tests and rigors of training, they work with their handlers up to 8 hours a day with plenty of breaks and are given the best diet, health care and attention for the rest of their lives. Murray and his other Brigade members are especially suited for this life. Murray would not be a happy dog as a couch potato; his strong and inherent hunting instinct, food motivation, early development and desire to play and be rewarded make him a perfect match for this lifestyle.
We know that dogs have a remarkable sense of smell and members of the Beagle Brigade are specially trained to detect numerous agricultural products and pests. Initially, they are trained to detect apples, citrus, mangos, beef and pork. Over time, the dogs learn to detect more scents, and some can detect up to 50 different types of odors from various contraband. They are trained to differentiate the scents of illegal agricultural goods from hundreds of other normal and common scents. For example, they can detect an orange, beef or pork product and alert their handlers but not give alerts on candy that is orange-flavored, lotions or other safe items. The dogs have over a 90% accuracy rate as they diligently sniff thousands of bags daily found on carousels, carried by passengers or being held by authorities. Although the USDA is responsible for training, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) operates and has authorization for the inspections at the airports. The CBP also trains larger dogs to do similar inspections of cargo, mail and baggage at land border crossings and seaports.
Today, it is estimated that U.S. agriculture and related businesses are worth over a trillion dollars to our economy but are constantly under attack from invasive species and dangerous pathogens originating from overseas that could be transported into this country causing millions of dollars of damages and losses. For example, fruit flies can attack our citrus trees and animal disease pathogens can infect and kill our livestock and poultry. Emerald Ash Borer is a pest that was illegally brought into the U.S. and has devastated millions of ash trees in 30 states. More recently, a pathogen and pest from Asia, called citrus greening disease, got into the U.S. and has attacked our citrus industries in Florida and California. Because of this disease, the orange production in Florida has been reduced by 75% with an estimated loss of $2 billion to that industry.
Murray and the other Brigade dogs are now part of 179 detection teams found at all U.S. international airports. In 2016 alone, these canine teams alerted their handlers to 1.77 million potentially illegal entries and helped screen luggage from 23 million passengers. Their work resulted in the interception, quarantine and destruction of over 75,000 illegal agricultural items that were, fortunately, kept out of our country thus protecting our highly valuable and vulnerable agricultural and food supply.
Murray and his friends will work until they are about 9 years old and are then adopted by loving families. It is not uncommon for their handlers to adopt them because they have developed a special bond and mutual love. All the dogs that are being retired or the dogs that fail their evaluation at the NDDTS in Newnan, Georgia, are guaranteed to be adopted. As a matter of fact, there is even a waiting list today to adopt these dogs. Murray’s story has been repeated hundreds of times. The Beagle Brigade is made up of beagles and beagle-crosses that mostly originate from animal shelters and rescue organizations. These are dogs given a second chance and subsequently live playful, energetic lives with a very noble purpose and receive praise, rewards and exceptional care in exchange for work that they love to do and are especially well adapted. The dogs of the Beagle Brigade have become the rock stars at our airports and even have their own trading cards and coloring books for kids. Murray’s brown eyes literally sparkle today as he looks forward to each new day and adventure. We are indebted to our shelters, humane societies and rescue groups that help give our canines a second chance and, who knows, when another neglected stray like Murray, will also become a national hero.