A federal program is giving shelter dogs a second chance while ensuring California farmland is protected.
With funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the California Department of Food and Agriculture is deploying dog teams to various counties to investigate shipping terminals and discover pests that might — if they were released – devastating local cultures. Many “detector dogs” come from shelters and rescues before being identified as prime candidates for USDA training.
Contra Costa County agricultural biologist and dog handler Simone Ackermann and her furry colleague Major are one of 10 canine teams in the state tasked with sniffing unmarked plots for plants, seeds, products, land or animals. Last year alone, Major alone discovered 150 parasites hidden in boxes. Ackermann said commercially certified shipments from places such as nurseries are not the problem.
“It’s Grandma Jones from Florida who sends the mangoes from her garden to her family in California,” she explained. “People who simply don’t know anything about our regulations.”
The work of canine teams is especially critical to America’s food system, with California feeding the nation and the world. The nation depends on the Golden State for nearly 75 percent of its fruits and nuts and more than a third of its vegetables, according to data from the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California, Berkeley.
As for agricultural exports, the state generated $22.5 billion in 2021 alone from international sales of almonds, dairy products, pistachios, wine and walnuts, among other products. In the 2021-2022 fiscal year, detector dogs intercepted 966 significant pests known to cause serious agricultural and economic impacts.
“This program is so important for a number of reasons,” said Contra Costa County Agriculture Commissioner Matthew Slattengren. “Most dogs in the California Detector Dog Program are over 99% accurate in detecting produce and other plant matter. Some of their findings could have cost California millions in quarantine costs and caused problems for our growers across the state. Bringing pests into the state costs less and requires fewer pesticides than if we detect them in the environment.
On a typical day, Ackermann gets up before the sun to pick up Major from a kennel in Brentwood. Then the two embark on their journey to different FedEx or UPS terminals. She explained that because he is owned by the USDA, a federal agency, Major must live in a professionally run kennel, not in her home.
Their journey may take them to various locations in Northern California including Contra Costa, Napa, Stanislaus, Solano, San Joaquin, Marin, San Mateo, Sonoma and sometimes others. They sometimes help in Alameda County, but that jurisdiction — which has one of the three major distribution centers in Northern California — has its own team of dogs. The other two centers are located in San Jose and West Sacramento.
At the terminals, they move quickly, surveying between 50 and 120 trucks. Ackermann said the dogs are not trained to find illegal drugs like cocaine.
“Of course they’ll find grass, because it’s a plant, but I don’t need a dog to find that one,” she joked.
The dog team program began in 2004, when Contra Costa County became the first in the state to receive two dog teams as part of the pilot project. The program was so successful that it expanded and added more teams across the state. Ackermann said the program aims to add more teams in the coming year.
Ackermann and Major have worked together since 2017, after Major was adopted into the program during a rescue in Alabama and they both received training from the National Detector Dog Training Center based in Newnan, Georgia.
Dogs are recruited for training when they are identified as food-oriented and eager to please, which is why friendly Labrador retrievers like Major are often excellent candidates. But it’s not about pedigree: often, mixed breeds make the final selection as long as they have the appropriate drive and temperament.
The National Detector Dog Training Center also regularly trains beagles and Jack Russell terriers. Beagles are primarily used at airports to inspect baggage for meats, fruits and vegetables. Terriers help find brown tree snakes on planes, vehicles, household items and ships leaving Guam for places like Hawaii. Brown tree snakes have driven the extinction of several native bird species on Guam.
On becoming a dog handler for the county agricultural department, Ackermann likened his relationship to that of a police officer in the K9 unit.
“You’re not just a canine officer. You’re a police officer with a dog,” she explained, noting that she was first an agricultural inspector before being assigned to the canine team with Major .
At 7 and a half years old, Major is approaching retirement, Ackermann will then adopt him. All managers have first adoption rights.
“As I myself have already reached retirement age, we are going to retire together,” she shared, adding that the two were considering a move to Greece.
Slattengren urged California residents to be careful about where they purchase produce and plant materials.
“Local is great; there is less of a carbon footprint and less risk of catching exotic parasites,” he continued. “Buying from reputable sources would be the best thing to do. When we find uncertified or backyard fruits from another state or country, we often find them infested with maggots. If it is one of the invasive and escaping pests… …which can cost millions to eradicate, involving increased workload, increased pesticides and loss of local produce.