Dogs have been by humans’ sides for more than 15,000 years and we’re still learning about all they can do. From sniffing out illnesses in humans to finding contraband at the airport, a canine’s nose knows.
Farmers have long relied on dogs to help with their work—from guarding livestock to herding animals where the farmer needs them to go. And researchers at Virginia Tech are now working to see if dogs can help farmers sniff out invasive pests and diseases that threaten crops.
“We know dogs are really incredible scent detectors,” said Dr. Erica Feuerbacher, assistant professor and director of the Applied Animal Behavior and Welfare Lab at Virginia Tech. “One of the things we hope is if we’re successful we can train companion animals up to a level where they are beneficial in the sense that they’re detecting diseases earlier than a human observer could or if they’re detecting them faster—speeding through plots of land more quickly than a human could—then we could look to some of these rural communities that are underserved to capitalize on some of the farm dogs already living with their owners.”
This is the first project of its kind in Virginia and the goal is to hone a canine’s skills to detect agricultural pests.
Feuerbacher and her research lab are starting with the spotted lanternfly, an invasive insect that’s a danger to ornamental plants, grapes, fruit and other crops. Blacksburg is not infected with the spotted lanternfly so the team had to get eggs from Winchester and kill them for use in exposing the dogs to the scent.
“In order to get the samples, we had to kill the eggs so the smell might be a little different than when they’re alive,” said Hannah Decker, the graduate student teaching the dogs. “It’s going really well. We had to take extra precautions because of the quarantine in Winchester but the dogs seem to be picking up really well on it.”
Decker earned an undergraduate degree from a college in Montana in Anthrozoology, or the study of the human-animal bond. It was during her junior year there that she first taught scent work and she was hooked.
“I just fell in love with it,” she said. “As far as pet dogs go, I think the hardest part is making sure they’re motivated and it’s especially difficult with pet dogs that don’t have the same drive that working dogs do. But, now that school is back and I’m not traveling the next couple months, I’m hoping to get back and train and then go up to Winchester and test some of the pet dogs on real spotted lanternflies that will hopefully be up there.”
Dr. Mizuho Nita, an associate professor at Virginia Tech and Virginia Cooperative Extension specialist in grape pathology, said spotted lanternfly egg masses can be difficult to detect as they resemble pieces of mud sticking to the surface of objects. “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.”
“We’re also looking at powdery mildew, which is a mildew that grows on grapevines. The people in the vineyards can see it, but as soon as it’s visible it’s essentially too late to save the vine,” Decker said. “So, what they do is spray pesticide everywhere to cover their bases. But, if we could get the dogs to come through and smell it and catch it early then it could be really helpful for the industry. The dog could show the workers where to spray instead of spraying everything.”
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.”
Feuerbacher said it can be a win-win for the owner and the dog.
“The dogs gets to do more fun things with its owner and have a more rich life and we help the community solve some problems and it’s fun for the owner, too,” she said.
It was Dr. Pete Coppolillo, executive director of Working Dogs For Conservation in Montana, who suggested to Feuerbacher that it would pretty neat to create a citizen scientist scent detection program.
“When I moved out here, and since we’re an agricultural school, it seemed like that might be a really good approach for trying to get these dogs, including my own, who could have even more enrichment in their lives,” she said. “It’s important to get the citizenry excited about science and feeling like they can do it.”
Decker and Feuerbacher said farmers who are willing to allow the researchers and dogs on their land should contact them through email at email@example.com.
If the project is successful, Feuerbacher said they hope to establish protocols to train dogs that can be deployed in their communities and expand to other agricultural pests and diseases.
“I just think we underestimate what dogs can do,” Decker said. “We just see them as companion animals, which is great and I absolutely love my pet dogs, but I definitely think we underestimate their abilities in all capacities.”
People can follow the research on the Applied Animal Behavior and Welfare Project at Virginia Tech Facebook page, as well, @aabvt.
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