Meet the detector dogs protecting Australia from harmful pests and diseases

Published: December 2019 I By: Ellouise Bailey, Photography by: Nick Cubbin 

With the rise of African swine fever, these dogs are vital to safeguarding the Australian agriculture industry.

Handler Sarah, a biosecurity officer at the Department of Agriculture, with detector dog Izzy at Sydney Airport.
4:00am Wake-up call for detector dogs

THERE’S no sleep-in here. The kennel hand and dogs wake before sunrise to get to the airport on time. Dogs working at the airport receive food treats as rewards for sniffing out biosecurity risks, so their feed for the day is usually given during their shift. If any dogs need medication, the kennel hand will administer it prior to sending the dogs to the airport transport vehicle.

Only the cleverest dogs make it to this point. Puppies are fostered by volunteers for 15-18 months, then go through an eight-week training course in Brisbane, and finally spend another eight weeks learning the more than 200 odours related to items that pose significant biosecurity risks to Australia. The most enthusiastic dogs generally fare the best. 

Their handlers are trained biosecurity officers who have applied to the dog unit. New recruits are sent to the same training facility as the dogs for five weeks.
4:30am Dogs ride to the airport to protect Australia from pests and diseases 
The kennel hand helps load two teams of four dogs on the airport shift into the van for the 25-minute drive to Sydney Airport. Each group will work together on their assigned days. There’s always one group of dogs at the airport, another group at the mailroom and another on their rostered day off.

The biosecurity detector dog scheme began in 1992 and beagles were originally used but the Department of Agriculture switched to labradors due to their strong hunting and retrieval abilities and, of course, their strong food drive. They’re cooperative, agile and a good size for screening larger items such as bags stacked up on top of each other. 

The labradors are bred by Australian Border Force in Melbourne, then selected for postings based on how well they work.

5:00am Handlers receive detector dogs for daily training program

At the airport, the biosecurity officers working as dog handlers sign in for the day. They meet the dogs at the van and toilet them. Each team of dogs and their handlers then go to their assigned passenger screening hall. 

Detector dogs at Sydney Airport wait patiently for their turn to screen arriving travellers.
Here the dogs are weighed and any health checks are performed. The dogs wait in their crates while the handlers set up training for the day. 

If there is a specific target operation – right now it’s high-risk pork products – the handlers will set up bags with those items, or a target odour, inside. Bags are mocked up with clothing and toiletries to make it as lifelike as possible. 
6:00am Sense of smell vital as airport passenger screening begins

Out of 520,000 passengers screened at Sydney Airport in 2018-19, detector dogs picked up 17,000 ‘biosecurity items’. One dog can make up to 9,000 detections in its working life. The dogs work in shifts from 6am to midday. 

They are trained to find fruit, vegetables, seeds, plant material, meat and eggs. Many passengers bring in fruit without realising it is a problem, but others know they are doing the wrong thing and conceal items.
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The dogs’ acute sense of smell means they can often pinpoint exactly where an item is on a passenger. With 300 million olfactory receptors, compared to our measly 6 million, dogs are able to smell up to 100,000 times better than humans.

The detector dogs work for about six hours during the day with each passenger screening session lasting five to 10 minutes. The dogs always get a good break after their run. 

Sarah rewards Jewel for a correct detection. 

Handlers and dogs work closely together, and handlers are always assigned the same dog. It’s clear the animals love their job. They jump up excitedly as their handlers approach, ready to start work. 

When they detect a suspicious item, the dogs are encouraged to react in a passive manner, such as sitting, and putting their nose to the problem scent. If this happens, another biosecurity officer will check the luggage. If a risky item is found then the passenger will be asked to stand back in line to repeat the dog’s response, and the dog is rewarded with food, reinforcing the positive detection. The handlers only reward dogs if their response is correct. 

If a dog makes more than two detections in one run they’ll sometimes be finished early to give the other dogs the chance to find something. The handlers watch closely to see how the dogs are performing during their turn screening passengers. They’ll rest them if they’re getting tired or lethargic, but usually the dogs are very eager to get their run in with their trainer by their side.

“We are at the forefront of stopping any of these pests and diseases from coming into Australia that have the potential to have devastating effects on our agriculture and the business of farmers,” says dog handler Sarah.

“We are here to protect their livelihood and ensure that Australia remains well-known for not having many pests and diseases. We’re protecting the border.”
9:00am Mailroom dogs start border protection work

While the teams have been screening passengers, the kennel hands have prepared the next group of six dogs for the mail gateway facility. They screen all incoming international mail from 10am to 6pm. The mail comes in on a large conveyor belt and the dogs run over the belts to sniff out contraband.

Dogs are trained to ‘dig’ on the suspicious item and are rewarded with a game of tug of war for successful detections. Reward consistency lets the dogs know exactly what their job is and what is expected of them in each situation. But it also depends on the dog; Sarah says that sometimes they prefer a pat and cuddle from their handler.

Kennel hand Hilary works out the dogs’ feed requirements, before preparing the food and delivering it to the animals. 

11:30am How kennel staff ensure detector dogs are in top condition

Like all dogs, detector dogs love their food. At the kennels, a large whiteboard shows the food allocations for each of the 20 biosecurity detector dogs. They have their own bowls and their feed is weighed out in grams. Their food rewards are taken into account so they aren’t overfed.

Some of the dogs have specially designed bowls to stop them gobbling down their food too quickly. As active working dogs, they do require more food than a pet, and they’re fed a premium dog food that gives them all the nutrition they need. 

During this time, the kennel staff also clean and make sure the rostered-off dogs are comfortable in the outdoor kennel.

Biosecurity officer Kathleen places the confiscated goods into a quarantine bin.

12:00pm Sniffing out the greatest biosecurity risks to Australian agriculture

Back at the airport, the dog team will collectively find 20-30 problem items each day, from seeds to meat and fruit. Once a dog sniffed out a whole barbecued guinea pig! Recently detector dog Izzy found 10kg of fruit and meat products in one person’s luggage. Often passengers are found with balut, fertilised duck egg, a delicacy from the Philippines and other parts of Asia which poses a huge risk to our agricultural sector. 

If a passenger unintentionally or accidentally brings something into the country a written warning can be issued. If a passenger is found to be intentionally failing to declare items, they can be fined $420 on the spot. Under strict new biosecurity regulations, they can also have their visitor’s visa revoked and must leave immediately. 
12:30pm Break time for the hard working detector dogs

Dogs at the airport are fed before heading back to the kennels. They are usually fed less than the other dogs as they receive treats throughout their scanning session. The handlers know their ideal weight and so the dogs are kept at that weight to maintain their top physical condition. If the dogs have put on or lost weight, their feeding schedule and workloads are adjusted. 

Back at the kennels Sarah exercises Wilbur, who is rostered off on the day.

Just outside the terminal there is a small grassed area where the dogs can go and relieve themselves, have a drink of water and stretch their legs before heading back inside to be loaded back into the van to return to the kennels.

1:30pm Dogs relax with a bone after a long day at the airport 

Back home at the kennels the dogs can relax. They have time to snooze and play in the exercise yards with other dogs on their rostered day off, lie in the sun, and dig and roll in the grass. Like all dogs, they love getting dirty. Sometimes the kennel hands will just wipe them down with a towel before work, but once every three to four weeks the dogs are given a proper bath. 

Kennel hand Dale treats the dogs to a brisket bone. 

They are given a tasty brisket bone once every few weeks as a treat and to improve oral health. The kennels, which are shared with dogs working for Australian Border Force and Australian Federal Police, house 20 biosecurity detector dogs. On a typical day eight are rostered to the airport, six to the mail gateway facility, and six have a rostered day off.
3.00pm Detector dogs and trainers bond over exercise

Wilbur takes a dip in the pool at the kennels, chasing a rope and toys thrown into the water to give him exercise on his day off. 

The most exciting part of the day for some dogs is pool time. Not only is it fun, it gives them exercise to build stamina for their demanding job. Trainers will usually spend five or 10 minutes throwing toys or rope into the pool for them to retrieve. It’s a time when dogs and trainers can also strengthen their bond away from the working environment. 

6:00pm Mailroom detector dogs return from the airport 

At the mail and shipping room, the dogs are mainly looking for seeds, insects and food. The brown marmorated stink bug is of particular concern in warmer months when they become active following hibernation. With more than 300 agricultural and ornamental plant species at risk, this bug poses a serious threat to horticulturalists. It can crawl into small spaces and will not emit an odour until the weather heats up. With the arrival of summer, the dogs are undergoing scent training to pick up the bugs as they reactivate. 

Detector dog Izzy prepares for passenger screening at Sydney Airport.

Ornamental plants and flowers imported for specific holidays are also checked by the biosecurity officers. Plants arrive to a closed-off facility where inspections are performed, including giving the plant a “good old shake” to see if anything falls out. The Department of Agriculture will send reports on how many interceptions are made and will notify the exporting country. Once the dogs are finished their shift, they join the other dogs at the kennels. 

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8:00pm Sweet dreams for these hard working canines 

It’s bed time for the hard-working pooches. Each dog has their own section to sleep in, with a bed and a jacket when it gets cold. The facility has heated floors in winter and air-conditioning in summer.

A biosecurity detection dog will usually work for six to eight years before they are retired to a loving home – often with a former handler. 
“I love working with dogs every day. It’s fascinating watching how the dogs work. Watching that dog you can see that they’ve picked up on an odour, and then being involved in having that dog do its job in protecting Australia is really very satisfying,” says Dog handler Sarah. 

Penalties for passengers carrying undeclared pork into Australia

All the items found the day The Farmer visited Sydney Airport, including pork crackling, fruit and seeds.

Undeclared pork is always a risk, and is more dangerous than ever with the overseas spread of African swine fever (ASF). 

In October, a Vietnamese woman was deported from Sydney Airport after she failed to declare 10kg of pork, eggs and other banned products, and in November, a Vietnamese man was sent back home for carrying 4kg of moon cakes filled with pork in his bag.

They were among the first tourists to be deported under strict new quarantine laws intended to keep ASF out of the country. The laws allow authorities to cancel a visitor’s visa for up to three years if they try to bring in high-risk products.
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Minister for Agriculture Bridget McKenzie says that between November 2018 and August 2019 detection units picked up over 27 tonnes of pork products. Her department’s test results also reveal that ASF has been detected in nearly 50% of pork products stopped at our international airports, compared to just 15% nine months earlier.

“If you are travelling from an ASF country, we are watching you,” the Minister says. 
Five big biosecurity threats to Australia’s agriculture industry

In addition to African swine fever, these pests and diseases are some of the top risks to our ag industry.
  1. Khapra beetle

  2. A grain pest originating in India, this beetle has the ability to reproduce rapidly. The larvae can remain dormant for up to two years. Similar in appearance to native beetles, it can be more difficult to identify than other pests. It puts Australia’s grain industry at risk due to export regulations in many countries that restrict the movement of grain from infected countries. It also threatens dried fruit products and seeds. It can be spread through imported grain and food or machinery, and by individuals bringing it back through luggage and personal items. If it were to arrive on Australian shores it could easily spread through the transport of seeds, grains, straw, cargo and machinery.

  3. Citrus Canker

  4. A serious bacterial disease of commercial citrus plants, citrus canker can be carried into Australia by infected plant material. Originally from South-East Asia but now also found in Africa, the Middle East, the Americas and some Pacific Islands, it causes lesions on fruit, which then fail to ripen on the tree. It also damages leaves and twigs. Infected trees must be immediately disposed of and replaced. Citrus canker can easily spread between trees in strong wind and rain and is most damaging in hot, wet climates. Outbreaks have previously been eradicated from Queensland and the Northern Territory, and Australia was declared free of citrus canker in 2009.

  5. Xylella

  6. This invasive bacterial plant pathogen has the potential to wipe out commercial plants and is quickly spreading throughout the world. Italy’s olive groves, which are thousands of years old, have already been damaged by the pathogen, which causes browning and/or scorched leaves. It can be spread by people bringing in plant cuttings, through airmail, or via insects. If it came here, over 350 native commercial and ornamental plant species could be at risk.

  7. Exotic fruit fly

  8. Although Australia already harbours foreign fruit flies, and has over 150 native species, we remain free of the more damaging exotic varieties. Mediterranean fruit fly has made its way into Western Australia, but fruit and plants from the region are subject to strict control. Further exotic species could disrupt our domestic and export markets and over 300 fruit and vegetable crops could be impacted. The easiest entry is through the Torres Strait during monsoonal winds. Imported fruit could also bring the insects here.

  9. Foot-and-mouth disease

  10. As one of the most contagious animal viruses, the disease usually infects cloven-hoofed animals such as cattle, buffalo, camels, sheep, goats, deer and pigs. It may be spread by inhalation or ingestion and can be carried in infected meat and dairy products. Australia has been free of the disease for more than 140 years, but the livestock industry would be jeopardised if an outbreak was to occur. It is reported in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and South America.

Source: Australian Department of Agriculture

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