After a 10 hour flight from England my daughter Tiger was delighted that a cute little Beagle strolled over for a quick sniff. The Beagle refused to leave; his tail wagged vigorously, he then sat himself down right next to our bags. Tiger, with her affection for all things canine, just wanted to pet and play with the cute puppy. Of course this Beagle was on a mission, and it was the squashed cheese and tomato sandwich in the bag.
This was my introduction to US Customs and Border Protection and their efforts to look after US agricultural interests.
Every day hundreds of passengers land at Denver International Airport (DIA) with contraband food and souvenirs. In some cases they are simply not aware that these items are illegal. Innocent looking items can have a very detrimental effect on our environment. In sea ports, airports and border crossings across America, Beagle Hounds and other canine border control dogs are trained to sniff out these baddies.
US Customs and Border Protection is in place to protect the United State’s agricultural and economic interests from harmful pests and diseases. Some plants and seeds are invasive species and can overtake our fields, killing the native flora. Some seeds such as Chinese water spinach can grow in the water and kill our fish populations—toys and souvenirs are often stuffed with seeds. Many plant diseases live in soil, and even in small amounts can have a very negative effect. Consequently, in instances where holy soil in a bottle is brought into the US, it must be confiscated. Beautifully hand decorated eggs can harbor diseases such as bird flu. Ornate dolls made of dried citrus could be carrying citrus black spot or citrus canker.
Beagles such as Austin (our DIA Beagle) are the breed of choice for this line of work because they are smaller breeds and are less intimidating. Beagles have a curious nature, are very intelligent, and are problem solvers. The dogs selected for this line of work have often come from pounds and rescue centers all over the US. In many instances they have ended up in a rescue center as a result of their troublesome nature; they need stimuli, and have often proven too much for their owners to cope with.
Once a dog has been selected, he will embark on temperament testing. This encompasses a series of sudden actions to try and “shake his cool;” a hand in the face, an umbrella shaking next to him, a clipboard being dropped. If a dog can work through this without distraction and can remain calm, he passes the temperament test and can go on to training.
Initial training comprises of a line of empty boxes, one of which contains an apple. Once the dog sniffs the box containing the fruit, he is rewarded. The training progresses with the dog learning that he needs to sit when he smells an odor. Dogs are taught not to think about the odor; smell, and sit. Gradually more odors are added; such as citrus, beef, pork and mango. Non-target items are also included, such as toothpaste, dried fish, chocolate, shampoos, and lotions. It is vital that he ignores the non-target items because these items are allowed into the US. This part of the training is conducted for 15–20 minutes once or twice a day for two weeks. Training is based on positive reinforcement; rewards, pats on the head, and plenty of encouragement. Voice training is used; a deeper voice to be firm, an excited voice for reward.
Once the dog has completed basic training, he is teamed up with his handler for a further 10 weeks. On week five, he will enter the airport and continue the training; he has now graduated from boxes to luggage. On week eight, he is tested using six different exercises with 100 bags containing a variety of foods of varying strength. He is then ready for duty.
A typical day in the life of Austin, our 6-year-old DIA Beagle, would be a pickup from his kennel in the canine vehicle, a run around in the agility yard to burn off some excess energy, and then it is time for work at the airport. When he is not at work, he lives in his kennel. A house would be too confusing because of all the different smells.
On the arrival of a flight, Austin is kitted out in his “work jacket.” He will work in 15–30 minute segments with plenty of treats and water breaks. Breaks coupled with an ample supply of water are imperative to avoid becoming overwhelmed and to refresh his sense of smell.
Each year, over 80 million passengers arrive by air in the US. There are more than 80 Beagles and handlers stationed throughout these borders. These dogs are highly trained sniffing machines that are looked after very well by their handlers. The handlers are paired with their dogs, and will continue to work with them until they retire. When it is time to retire, the handler gets first choice to adopt the dog.
According to National Geographic (October 2010), Beagle Brigade teams keep an annual average of 75,000 prohibited products from entering the US. To the Beagles, of course, this is just a fun game of “hide-and-go-seek.”
Written by Ali French, Nov/Dec 2011