Citrus, apples, stone fruit, mango and guava are not your average doggie treats, but when Taz sniffs a package with these aromas, he wags his tail and claws excitedly at it.
Taz is the newest agriculture detection dog at the Sacramento County Department of Agriculture
. Like his predecessor, Taz is a Labrador retriever mix who was selected by the National Detector Dog Training program from a shelter in Atlanta, Georgia. He underwent four months of training and arrived in Sacramento County on Aug. 14, 2018 – “An awesome day for me!” says handler Mariah deNijs, a county Agriculture and Standards inspector.
They’ve been working together ever since.
Taz is part of the Sacramento County Pest Detection and Exclusion program, which focuses on unmarked packages shipped directly to Sacramento County. “In most instances, packages in marked containers do not cause problems,” says deNijs. It’s homegrown plants, like the box of Florida oranges Aunt Edna sends at Christmas, that are most likely to harbor bug stowaways.
Agricultural detection dogs are chosen for their good temperament, intelligence, energy level and orientation to food rewards. Labrador retrievers and beagles are the most selected breeds.
Taz is happy to sniff out potential pests on packages of plant matter that can potentially damage crops, he’s even happier when he gets a food treat as a reward for making a find.
Each Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, for four hours a day, the pair visit Fed Ex, UPS and US Postal Service delivery centers. Taz has been trained to focus on the scents of five fruits most likely to harbor pests and diseases that are dangerous to crops.
Continued on-the-job training has improved his skills.
“I’m amazed at how much he has expanded his scent profile,” said deNijs. “He wasn’t trained on lychee, but he recently found some in a package.”
Once Taz identifies a package, and proper contacts have been made if necessary, deNijs opens it and inspects the contents. If they are properly certified and pest-free, she re-seals the box and sends it on its way for delivery. If she sees potential pests, the material is confiscated and quarantined until the pests can be identified by the California Department of Food & Agriculture lab.
Taz has found 21 instances of pests in packages, including six that were “A-rated.” An A-rating means the pest is known to cause economic or environmental damage and is subject to state enforcement action.
Taz’s biggest find was a group of red-banded whiteflies on a bunch of smilax vines from Texas.
The California Agricultural Detector Dog Team Program is funded under the Farm Bill by the US Department of Agriculture and implemented by the California Department of Food & Agriculture. Taz is one of thirteen canines in California who assist agricultural inspectors with detection of plant products.