U.S. Beagle Brigade is First Defense Against Alien Species

Betsy Querna
National Geographic Today
June 7, 2001
Beagles are cute, sociable, and mellow. That makes them good pets. It
also makes them good federal agents.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) uses over 60 beagle teams in 21 international airports across the United States.

"The Beagle Brigade" is responsible for sniffing out and confiscating fruits, vegetables, and meats that are banned from crossing the country's borders.

The dogs and their human partners form a critical barrier against the entry of plant and animal diseases into the United States.

"We're kind of like the first line," USDA National Canine Instructor Brent Heldt told National Geographic Today." When people come down we're the first ones that are greeting them with canine teams."

But, before the beagles can go to work, they have to go to school.

The USDA National Detector Dog Training Center in Orlando, Florida, receives beagles donated by private owners, breeders, and animal shelters. Beagles are known for their keen sense of smell, but the dogs must have a few other characteristics to make it into the Beagle Brigade.

"Obviously, number one, they have to be great with people and children because when we're working in airports that's what we're working with. And they've got to have a real good food drive because they work for food," said Heldt.

In training, the beagles start by using boxes scented with the odors of beef, citrus, and mango. They learn to recognize these odors and sit passively near the box when they detect them, to allow the handler to inspect the box closer.

After several weeks, the dogs are matched up with a handler, who has gone through his or her own training program. In order to be effective, the two must learn to work together. At first, said Kimani Mustafa, an officer-in-training, that coordination can be tough.

Dogs and Humans Must Work as a Team

"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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