"You have to work as a team. And that's where it gets a bit hairy because, either I'm moving too fast or he's moving too slow."
While the pair may start out a little rough, by the end of the first year most beagles are able to correctly sniff prohibited material about 80 percent of the time. After two years the success rate rises to 90 percent.
After training in a controlled environment, the dog and human team is given a final test in the Orlando Airport. Here they must contend with real passengers and constant distraction.
"We had a sterile environment," said Heldt, "and now we're trying to prepare for an environment that's constantly changing."
As the passengers come through customs, they must declare whether or not they are bringing certain types of food into the country. The dogs sniff all passengers' baggage, regardless of their declaration, and, if they smell a potential contraband item, they sit to alert the handler. People who have declared food may have their food confiscated but will not be given a civil penalty. Those who have not declared anything, however, may be fined up to U.S. $250.
The teams train for a total of four weeks in the airport before they are given their validation test and, hopefully, graduate. After that, it's off to one of the airports around the country monitored by the USDA. Most dogs work for the Beagle Brigade for six to ten years.
Their job is serious business. Beagle Brigade teams keep an annual average of 75,000 prohibited products from entering the country.
Still, for the team to be effective, Heldt says it has to be fun. "The dogs don't know any different, it has to stay a game, it can't be a job that runs up and down the leash; if the handler's not happy, the dog can feel it; if the dog's not happy, the handler can feel it."
Fortunately for U.S. farmers the beagles' "game" keeps their crops and animals safe.
Viewers in the United States may learn more about the Beagle Brigade by tuning into National Geographic Today Thursday at 7 p.m. ET/PT.
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