How Are the Beagles Trained?
The USDA is responsible for training the detector dogs, as well as their handlers and supervisors, and it takes place at the National Detector Dog Training Center (NDDTC) in Newnan, Georgia. This is where members of the Beagle Brigade go to "beagle boot camp" to learn the ropes.
Training starts with a rigorous battery of tests to assess the dog's behavior, temperament and health status. Beagles must first pass screenings based on their high food drive (their desire to get food not related to their actual hunger), reactions to crowds and noisy situations, and their ability to stay focused.
Next begins the nose work — the dogs are taught how to sniff out contraband using boxes, bags and suitcases that contain prohibited fruits, plants and meats. The dogs learn to pick up on the scents of products like apples, oranges and beef, and then to further discriminate. For example, members of the Beagle Brigade learn to tell the difference between a real orange and a product that's just orange-scented, like candy or lotion. The dogs work for treats, and are rewarded for alerting a correct scent.
The beagles are accompanied by CBP agricultural specialists who serve as their handlers. Just like their canine counterparts, human officers have to complete training at the NDDTC too. This learning period for beagles and their handlers can last between 10 and 13 weeks, but training and evaluation are ongoing once the team land at their home base airport. The dogs may be trained to give either active responses (i.e., pawing at suspicious agricultural products), or passive/sitting responses, but regardless of their goal behavior, the handlers always make sure to reward them handsomely when they do the right thing [source: CBP].
"The dogs have fun — this is fun for them," says Abbey Powell, public affairs specialist at the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), an agency within the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). "All the training is totally based on positive reinforcement."
Despite having a nose built for the job (dogs have 220 million olfactory receptors compared to just 5 million in humans), not all beagles make the cut [source: Correa]. "Occasionally, a canine will be withdrawn from the program, even after passing the initial screening process," Powell says. Some dogs, for instance, just might not be able to hack the chaos at the airport and end up refusing to work. Those that do graduate know five basic scents: beef, pork, citrus, mango and apple, but some end up knowing many more.
But animal lovers needn't worry about the well-being of the canines that, well, fail. "These dogs are never euthanized or returned to animal shelters," Powell says. "Instead, the NDDTC takes great pride in their ability to adopt out any canine that is dropped from the program."