VT Project Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Agricultural Threats

track-432104_1920Dogs are known for their incredible noses. They can detect illness, sniff out bedbugs and even help with conservation efforts like locating sea turtle nests.

And now man’s best friend could become agriculture’s best friend—detecting invasive pests and diseases that threaten crops.

“Dogs are really amazing at scent detection,” said Dr. Erica Feuerbacher, assistant professor and director of the Applied Animal Behavior and Welfare Lab at Virginia Tech. “It’s a matter of helping them hone their skills to detect what we want them to detect.”

The first project of its kind in Virginia, Feuerbacher and her research lab are exploring scent-training dogs to detect agricultural pests and diseases. They’re starting with the spotted lanternfly, an invasive insect that’s a danger to ornamental plants, grapes, fruit and other crops.

Spotted lanternflies can spread long distances through dissemination of their egg masses, which can be hard to detect. They resemble pieces of mud sticking to surfaces of objects, said Dr. Mizuho Nita, an associate professor at Virginia Tech and Virginia Cooperative Extension specialist in grape pathology.

“The eggs may be hidden in a place where human inspectors cannot easily see,” said Nita, who is collaborating with Feuerbacher on the project. “If the trained dogs can detect these eggs to assist human inspectors, that would help slow down the spread.”

They’ll also train dogs to detect powdery mildew, a common fungal disease affecting crops. Once a plant starts showing disease symptoms, it’s often too late to save it, as the fungus is already established and producing spores. Nita is hopeful sensitive dog noses can detect early onset.

Stefanie Kitchen, assistant director of governmental relations at Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, said the benefits to farmers from this research are exciting.

“This type of research shows great potential for use on the farm,” Kitchen said. “Dogs’ natural talents are already being utilized to guard and herd livestock, and if they can be trained to sniff out invasive pests, they also could help farmers better protect their crops.”

The canine training, led by Virginia Tech graduate student Hannah Decker, focuses on employing dogs owned by people in the community as an “untapped resource” to help solve agricultural issues in specific localities. Feuerbacher added that competitive nose work is already popular among pet owners and demonstrates dogs’ ability to detect scents in complex environments.

If the project is successful, they hope to establish protocols to train dogs that can be deployed in their communities—and expand to other agricultural pests and diseases.

“Given the ubiquity of agricultural threats and the ubiquity of pet dogs … trying to tap into the dogs’ potential to help solve these issues would be really powerful,” Feuerbacher said. “I hope this helps keep our agriculture and environment protected from invasive species or diseases. Plus, we hope that it is fun and enriching for the dogs and owners and improves the human-dog relationship.”

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