HLB-Detector Dogs Coming to California

A dog trains in the field to detect the scent of HLB. (Photo courtesy of Pepe Peruyero, J & K Canine Academy)

The use of canines or “sniffer dogs” is again being investigated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for early detection of HLB-infected trees.

Through the HLB Multi-Agency Coordination (MAC) program, USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has invested millions of dollars in the research and training of detector canines for finding HLB-positive trees.

A recent full-day meeting in Riverside that included APHIS and Agricultural Research Service representatives, along with California citrus industry leaders, has paved the way to test the dogs in California.

“We met to talk about where are we right now and where do we want to be in terms of using canines as a screening device in California’s citrus, whether it’s backyards, in nurseries or in commercial groves,” said Gary Schulz, president of the California Citrus Research Board. “So we covered a lot of ground. We came to a consensus on some things. There’s a lot of gaps to fill in and a lot of dots to connect, but I think we made some good progress.”

Results from previous testing have shown that properly trained dogs can identify citrus trees in a very early stage of HLB disease with as much as 98 percent accuracy. The dogs are most accurate when HLB is not overwhelming, and is found only in a small part of their sample. The dogs are coming to California because the disease has been geographically isolated and outbreaks have been limited to individual trees.

Schulz says canines are expected to be on the ground by December 2018 or January 2019.

The initial testing is being overseen for the USDA by Tim Gottwald, a Florida-based USDA researcher. “Dr. Gottwald is the principal investigator for the HLB MAC project, and the dogs are owned by APHIS, and so the work over this next probably 18 months is going to be done under that regime,” explained Schulz.

He pointed out that there are several items to address before the dogs are able to work in California groves: “How do we keep them acquainted with the scent? How do we work with the regulatory agencies to use the dogs in areas that might be a problem in terms of confidentiality-wise on locations? How do we work with the grower groups to increase their acceptance and confidence in the dogs to take management actions if the dogs alert on trees?”

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About the Author

Len Wilcox

Len Wilcox is a retired scientist who also ran a newspaper and has written for agricultural publications since the 1980s. He was a regular contributor to California Farmer Magazine. His commentary "The Western View" is a regular feature on Farm City Newsday and AgNet West.