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Beagle boot camp: learning to sniff out contraband

beagle training
The dogs are trained to sit when they smell contraband   
November 27, 1997
Web posted at: 9:31 a.m. EST (1431 GMT)

ORLANDO, Florida (CNN) -- Don't be surprised if you meet a green-clad dog sniffing out your luggage when entering the United States at an airport. The dog is part of the Beagle Brigade, which is helping the U.S. Department of Agriculture prevent an influx of dangerous diseases.

But before a beagle is allowed to wear the bright green uniform, it has to undergo strict training -- in other words, boot camp.

They don't bite and they may look cute. But it can be a dog's life until a beagle finally gets the green light to join the hundreds of agricultural inspectors as the nation's first line of defense against costly animal and plant pests and diseases.

Watch Ann Kellan's entire report
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beagle training
Beagle gets cozy with the camera   

Qualified USDA sniffers like Daisy, who works at an international airport in Florida, nose around the luggage of incoming travelers. They are trained to ignore most odors, but sit down when they get a whiff of fruits, meats or other contraband items.

They are able to detect such odors through layers of clothes, plastics and bags. Beagles like Daisy are increasingly being used at U.S. international airports.

And that's where Freddy may work one day, too. Freddy is a new recruit at the Beagle Brigade's national training center in Orlando.

There, beginners learn the ropes of how to sniff out contraband. The beagle faces a number of boxes, bags and suitcases and has to sniff out where exactly the prohibited fruits, plants and meats have been hidden by the instructors. (icon 111K/9 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

Will Freddy make it?

"Uh, we don't know at this stage ... We're working on it," said his handler.

Every dog that shows promise is assigned to an inspector, and they become a team.

"They make good partners," said USDA officer Melanie Smylie about her new partner, Zoey.

Once the team passes muster at boot camp, the real test comes: a visit to the airport.

Beagle boot camp
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After two years of on-the-job experience, USDA-trained beagles can sniff out prohibited material correctly 90 percent of the time. A Beagle Brigade dog's career spans about six years.

"The dogs may go through 12 weeks of training with the students and when they get to the airport they may go totally berserk or have something scare them at the airport," said instructor Michael Smith. "It could be luggage falling over and (the dog could) totally lose it and not want to work anymore."

All Beagle Brigade candidates are donated by private owners and breeders, or are selected from animal shelters. Beagle Baxter, for instance, was on death row. "He had heart worms and basically this dog would have been euthanized if we had not adopted him," a USDA officer said.

The USDA uses beagles because they are raised in packs and normally remain calm in crowded and noisy locations such as busy baggage-claim areas. Beagles also have an acute sense of smell and a gentle nature. Plus, their natural love of food makes them effective detectives and happy to work for treats. "Our dogs work for food, that is their salary," instructor Sandy Seward said. (icon 77K/7 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

Only about half of the beagle boot camp recruits eventually qualify and are allowed to wear the official green uniform, which reads "Protecting American Agriculture" on one side and "Agriculture's Beagle Brigade" on the other.

When a dog is retired, his or her last partner has the option of keeping the dog as a pet. If the USDA officer does not keep the dog, it will go to a suitable home. That's the case, too, for dogs who fail the training program.

As for Freddy, the latest CNN heard was that he is still in boot camp. Maybe he'll be sniffing you at an airport some day soon.

Correspondent Ann Kellan contributed to this report.


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