Teaching old dogs new tricks for plant health

The role of biosecurity detector dogs in helping protect Australia from exotic pests and disease is becoming increasingly important.

The number of international passengers, cargo and mail items arriving in Australia is growing every year.

This places increasing pressure on existing biosecurity strategies and detection technologies.

Detector dogs are a fast, versatile and mobile detection technology that can screen across a range of environments. They play an important role in strengthening Australia’s biosecurity systems in response to emerging threats.

“For over 25 years biosecurity detector dogs have actively contributed to Australia’s frontline defence against damaging biosecurity risks,” Australian Government Department of Agriculture‘s Peta Lane said.

“From just a pair of dogs in Sydney and Brisbane, to dogs deployed across the country from Perth to Darwin, the biosecurity detector dog program has grown considerably.

 Plant pest, brown marmorated stink bug

Plant pest, brown marmorated stink bug

Labradors now make up the entire canine workforce – their extraordinary sense of smell and cooperative, gentle nature make them excellent detectors,” Ms Lane said.

The detector dogs are trained to identify over 200 items that pose a biosecurity risk. The most common items being seeds, meat, live plants and fruit.

“The dogs detect more than 65,000 biosecurity risk items each year with individual dogs making more than 9,000 detections in their working life. These detections provide critical protection for our $60 billion dollar agricultural industries and the health of our communities, economy, environment and unique wildlife,’ said Ms Lane.

A growing threat to Australia is the plant pest, brown marmorated stink bug, which is spreading throughout Europe and the Americas. To assist in managing this threat, detector dogs are being trained to identify and locate them.

“We worked with researchers to identify ways to train detector dogs to recognise the odour of this exotic species. This is a challenge as there are no bugs present in Australia so an effective substitute needed to be created to conduct training and maintain the dog’s capability,” Ms Lane said.

Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks!

Author: Monique Mahoney