A Four Footed Officer Protects Arizona’s Agriculture
By Debra J. White
Ranger, a three year old Beagle, arrives for his shift at Sky Harbor Airport at noon. Sky Harbor is among the nation’s top ten busiest airports. As soon as an overseas flight lands the three-year old dog and his handler, Officer Julia P. Smith, spring into action. On high alert they patrol among throngs of passengers for contraband food and plants not allowed into the US.
How come? One foreign insect or diseased plant can wipe out an entire crop, causing massive economic damages. The citrus and cotton industry are major businesses in Arizona and the state isn’t taking chances.
Leading Ranger on a leash. Officer Smith watches the dog and his super-sensitive nose take command. Clad in a purple vest with official U.S. Government logo, Ranger works with purpose as he steps over chic suitcases, beat-up totes and shopping bags sniffing for forbidden food items or plants.
Beagles are cute and non-threatening. That’s why US Customers and Border Patrol (CPB) use them at airports and other ports of entry. So naturally some passengers smile at Ranger or are ready to pat him on the head. But Ranger isn’t just any dog. He’s a Federal agent and the public isn’t supposed to interfere.
Before Ranger or any agricultural detection dog goes on patrol, the selection process comes first. CPB searches shelters and rescues for potential candidates although breeders donate some Beagles. Dogs must be young, usually one to three years. Sex doesn’t matter but dogs must be friendly, impervious to noise, and pass a physical evaluation.
An ideal detection dog according to Smith is one with a high search drive. “Will the dog keep searching or give up easily? They must show enthusiasm for the work,” says Smith. After basic obedience training, Beagles and sometimes Beagle mixes are ready for the next level where they learn to discern between various smells. Once they master a scent, another one is added.
All detection dogs train at the national center in Atlanta, Georgia. Training level varies depending on the type of work involved, such as narcotics or bomb detection, but the agriculture program usually lasts about six months. Dogs learn to sniff out certain foods and plants, depending on where they’ll be assigned. In Phoenix for example, thousands of travelers enter from Mexico. Foods such as prickly pear cactus and manzano peppers are prohibited. So a Beagle patrolling the Miami airport may not be trained to sniff out these foods because CPB say they are more likely to enter through the Southwestern United States.
Training is food motivated. If the dog makes a find, he’s rewarded with a treat. A dose of praise of course reinforces the behavior. So the dog learns that the more items he finds the more treats he gets. And when the dog’s nose is alerted to a forbidden food or plant, he sits down by the luggage. Handlers escort the passenger to the side for further questioning. If needed, their luggage is X-rayed or searched.
Officer Smith says that a lot of passengers usually feign ignorance when caught. “Oh, how’d that piece of fruit get in my suitcase?” There are penalties for not declaring food or plant items on a Customs form that every passenger fills out when entering the U.S. It’s almost impossible to collect from foreign travelers but American citizens face fines that range from $175 for the first offense to an appearance in Federal court for the third.
Food rewards are strong incentive to keep these highly trained dogs going under adverse conditions. Airports are crowded, noisy and hectic. A few irritated passengers, especially those from countries that consider dogs as vermin, do not appreciate dogs sniffing their personal belongings. Smith says most passengers tolerate Ranger but now and then some try to push him away. Working dogs are protected by Federal law and passengers who assault them can face fines.
Ranger is new to CPB and only on the job for a few weeks. His confiscations are minimal but he’s expected to step up. His predecessor, Sprite, piled up an impressive record. The Beagle mix, a former stray, made over 3,500 fruit and 800 meat seizures in her first two years alone. Sprite is retired and lives a comfortable life in the Phoenix area.
Ranger works five days a week sniffing out contraband plants and food at Sky Harbor Airport. He’s eager and ready to protect Arizona from dangerous pests and plant diseases. That’s not bad for an unwanted dog saved from a rescue.
In 2009, agricultural canines intercepted 4,291 prohibited plants, meat and meat by-products from entering the US at airports and entry ports. According to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, there are currently 115 agriculture detection dog teams working around the U.S. mostly in international airports, seaports, land border ports of entry and international mail facilities.
Mandatory retirement age is nine. Dogs are not sent to shelters but rather placed into good homes, most often with their handlers. During their career, they receive regular veterinary care, food, and are not worked to exhaustion.