Sacramento's newest agriculture inspector sniffs out pests

02/11/2012 12:00 AM

04/04/2012 9:51 PM

Under the light of a nearly full moon early Friday morning, Sacramento County's newest agricultural inspector reported for duty.

Dozer, an 86-pound Labrador retriever mix, bolted out of a white van and into OnTrac's bustling shipping warehouse on the end of a leash held by his human partner, inspector Jennifer Berger.

"Let's go!" Berger said. "Check!"

Dozer went to work at the facility near the former McClellan Air Force Base. Within seconds, he pounced upon a box labeled "California Flowers" that likely held someone's Valentine's Day bouquet. Racing through the facility, he sniffed pallets of copy paper, stacks of tires, even a package that held live lobsters, with nary a reaction.

Then he encountered a box with the words "Living Herbs" and pounced again, scratching at it frantically.

"Good boy!" Berger said, and passed him a treat from a pouch attached to her waist.

Dozer is one of 13 highly trained former shelter and rescued dogs that work to sniff out fruit and other plants that may be carrying agricultural pests such as fruit flies that pose a threat to California crops.

California law requires all shipments containing plant material to be conspicuously labeled so that they can be inspected. But many never get labeled, or labels fall off, or are hidden. It is Dozer's job to find packages that might otherwise be overlooked by human inspectors.

The dog teams, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are credited with intercepting packages containing pests that could decimate crops across the nation.

They are specifically trained to sniff out the odors of apples, citrus, mangoes, stone fruits and guava, and to alert their handler by scratching on containers that might be holding those plants. Human inspectors then open the packages to make sure they are free of insect intruders.

Dozer's predecessor, Tassie, became a heroine in 2009 for finding an unmarked parcel of guavas and curry leaves that happened to be contaminated with Asian citrus psyllids, which can infect and destroy citrus crops. Tassie retired in 2010 at age 9.

The sniff dogs are chosen from shelters and rescue groups and trained at the USDA National Detector Dog center in Georgia before they are matched with a handler. Dozer, 3, escaped death row at a shelter in Atlanta and spent time with a rescue group before starting his training.

Not every canine can be an inspector dog, Berger explained. Labradors are ideal because they are "very, very high energy," she said, and enjoy working. The breed also responds well to "positive reinforcement" in the form of treats when they accomplish a task. Canine agricultural inspectors also must be confident, focused and unafraid of loud noises that ring through parcel facilities.

Dozer has been on the job for only a few weeks, but he is showing all the signs of being an effective inspector, said Berger.

"For him, there's nothing better in life than going to work," she said. "He's all about finding as many boxes of fruits or plants as he possibly can" and getting his tasty rewards.

As for Berger, "I feel extremely lucky to have such a great job working with a dog."

Both members of the team radiated enthusiasm Friday, as Dozer sniffed his way through warehouses at OnTrac and UPS, threading through aisles, jumping on conveyor belts and checking the backs of trucks for agricultural booty amid the sounds of clanking doors, hissing trucks and slamming pallets.

It was a particularly busy day, given the proximity to Valentine's Day. The dog never wavered from his duties, even when excited workers called out to him or reached out to pet his brown coat.

Dozer found no unmarked parcels Friday but showed his skills by locating a box that once held apples and still carried the fruit's smell. He also alerted Berger to an orange sitting on a UPS staffer's desk.

After he and Berger made their rounds, they retreated back to her office off Bradshaw Road where he gnawed on a chew toy, reclined in his crate and leapt into his handler's lap for some affection.

At the end of the day, Dozer retreats to a pet hotel. He cannot go home with his handler, Berger explained, because he "would be clawing at the refrigerator" and attacking house plants.

"That's his job, and he does it very well," she said.

"But it wouldn't work out at home."


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