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It's a bountiful life: A dog a day keeps the pests away

May/June 2019 California Bountiful magazine

Man's best friend helps protect food supply


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Detector dogs Agent, left, with Diana Eckert, and Sedona, with Lauren Eckert, take a break from their duties to get their teeth and coats brushed. Photo: © 2019 Lori Fusaro

Fruit flies and other destructive pests can ruin fruits and vegetables grown in a backyard garden or on a farm. To prevent pests from entering California, the state Department of Food and Agriculture—cooperating with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and county agricultural commissioners—deploys a dozen detector-dog teams to inspect parcels at post offices and freight terminals. If a parcel containing an agricultural product such as a plant, soil or produce is detected, it is inspected for insects or diseases that pose a threat. In Los Angeles County, the job falls to Lauren and Diana Eckert, twin sisters who work for the county agricultural commissioner, and their respective dogs, Sedona and Agent.

How are the dogs selected? Lauren: One of the most important things is that our dogs are not aggressive. We want to make sure they react well to being startled. They have to have a high food drive as well. They also have to be between 1 and 3 years old. Diana: The majority of them are shelter dogs, although Agent was originally a service dog.

What kind of training do teams undergo? Lauren: The handlers who are picked by the counties are sent to the National Detector Dog Training Center in Newnan, Georgia, for 10 weeks to train with the dogs. Prior to that, the dogs have had some basic training on five target odors: apple, mango, citrus, guava and stone fruit. When the dogs get back to their home counties, they have another six months in what we call the acclimation phase—­we're still fine-tuning the training and getting the dogs out and ready to work in facilities.

What's a typical day like? Diana: We pick the dog up—they live in a kennel; they don't live with us. We start our days pretty early, so we can make the sort at usually FedEx, UPS or the post office. There, they either work on a parcel belt or they do cargo searches, or they search the trucks looking for targets. They usually work between two to three hours a day. We come back to the office, and we do basic canine care—brush the dog, brush their teeth; we do health checks on them, walk the dog. And then we do some more training with them.


Sedona investigates a box of lemons. Photos above and below courtesy of Office of Los Angeles County Agricultural Commissioner/Weights and Measures

When the dogs are on the job, what are they looking for? Diana: They look for fruit, vegetables, plants, soil, live insects and raw nuts. Most of the stuff we find is marked, but they're looking for the stuff that's unmarked—new pathways that pests can come into our county, trying to keep invasive insects and diseases out of L.A. County and California in general.

What is your most interesting find so far? Lauren: Sedona and I found some guavas from Florida that were heavily infested with Caribbean fruit fly larvae. That was a pretty cool find, because we prevented probably what would have been a big infestation in Los Angeles County. Diana: I think so far Agent's most interesting find is when he found Japanese apple rust, which has not been seen on this side of the country yet.


Agent checks parcels at a sorting facility for any sign of agricultural contraband. The dogs are among a dozen across the state working to keep pests from threatening California's fruit and vegetable supply.

How did you get into dog handling? Lauren: We both had agriculture degrees from Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. We started working for the agriculture department. I was told that there was an opening for a dog handler. Some of my college experience was in pre-vet. I was really excited about that, so I thought it would be a good fit.

What would you say is your favorite thing about this job? Lauren: I think the best thing about working with the dog is that it keeps your day really exciting. Anything you do is made a lot more fun and exciting when you have your dogs with you. Diana: Every day is different with a canine. You may do the exact same thing—we're going to the post office, we're going to the same post office. But just because you have a canine with you, they keep every day slightly different, so you're never bored.

What particular invasive pests are they looking for? Lauren: Tropical fruits are a big one. They carry a lot of different fruit flies. We're hoping for pretty much any and everything we can find, but there are some high-risk ones. Our dogs have found fruit flies coming into Los Angeles, and we've prevented infestations.

How many hours of training do the dogs need? What are they doing in this training? Lauren:We like to do at least four hours of training a week. If we're working in facilities, and we see something new or unusual—a specific tropical fruit, raw nut, wood product, stuff like that—we like to make sure we throw in different things in training that we've been seeing coming into facilities, to make sure our dogs are associated with that and to make sure they're catching it. So we like to stay with our five basic odors, but every once in a while we throw some new stuff in, just to keep it fun and interesting and to make sure that the dogs are really working well.

Is there a mandatory retirement age for the dogs? Lauren: Our dogs all retire when they reach 9 years old.

Where do they go once they retire? Lauren: Most of the time, the handlers adopt the dog. If for some reason the handler can't adopt the dog, the dogs will go back to the USDA, and they make sure the dogs have a really great home.

Meet all of California's detector dogs at www.cdfa.ca.gov/plant/dogteams/index.html.


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