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

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

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