Airport detection dogs: cute, nosy, on your case (your suitcase, that is)
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Not long ago, Tess and Baymon were homeless cast-offs without much of a future.
Now, they are respected federal airport workers tasked with protecting our nation.
Tess and Baymon are agriculture detection dogs. The two beagles, which work at two airports in Florida, can hunt down potentially dangerous items faster and more accurately than their two-legged partners. Plus, Tess and Baymon never complain and are dedicated to their jobs.
The Beagle Brigade
Tess and Baymon are part of the Beagle Brigade, which is a U.S. Customs and Border Protection unit with 118 dog-and-handler teams nationwide.
Their purpose is to flag illegal plants, produce, food and pests being brought in by travelers. These items could spread disease or harm American crops and livestock.
Pound Puppies Get Second Chance
Almost every one of these hard-working, highly trained hounds came from an animal shelter or rescue group, while others were donated by a family or breeder.
“They are getting a second chance at life,” said Cassandre Boeri, Tess’ handler. “Tess is why I want to come to work every day. The passengers love her.”
Getting a rough start in life apparently doesn’t slow down these pups. In one year, the Beagle Brigade prompted 162,000 seizures of illegal and potentially dangerous food, pests and animal products nationwide. Tess, Baymon and other dogs at South Florida’s airports and seaports scored 8,000 of those hits.
Tail-Wagging Fun At Work
For the dogs, “it’s not work. It’s like playing hide-and-seek,” said Alberto Gonzalez, who is Baymon’s handler.
Exotic fruits are Tess and Baymon’s usual finds, though they've also found goat, iguana, ants and crickets. They sniff more than 2,000 pieces of luggage coming off international flights during their daily, six-hour shifts.
Like their handlers, Baymon and Tess wear uniforms. Baymon has a full, bright-colored vest with the phrase “Protecting America’s Agriculture,” while Tess sports a simple black harness labeled “Customs.”
Please Take My Card
They have business cards that their handlers distribute to passengers. Their official pictures are on one side and personal information is on the other, with tidbits like “favorite odor” and “best trick.” Tess’ pet peeve is “Passengers whistling at me" and Baymon’s main dislike: “Don’t touch me when I’m working.”
The Fort Lauderdale dogs, now both about 5 years old, were discovered by the National Detector Dog Training Center in Georgia. It is run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
Working Hard, Getting Treats
Before the dogs can go to work, they must have no fear of escalators or sliding glass doors. They also must be 10 months to 3 years old, social, focused and healthy. And, they must be willing to work hard for treats.
About 55 to 65 dogs complete six months of difficult training and the ones that don't pass the tests are adopted by families rather than sent back to shelters.
Then, the dogs and their human handlers must undergo another one to three months of center training as a couple before they start working.
Nothing To Sniff At
Boeri keeps a copy of a pet-finding website page where, two years ago, an Alabama animal shelter had listed Tess for adoption. The post said she was about 3 years old, “sweet and good with kids,” but that she barked a lot and was possibly not housebroken.
“In the two years I had her, she’s never gone to the bathroom inside,” Boeri said. “She’s a smart little girl.” Baymon was supposed to be a show dog. “But there was too much red on his nose or something,” said Baymon’s handler, Gonzalez.
That same nose was perfect for this job, though. Beagles have 220 scent receptors, which is more than most breeds and about the same as much larger dogs like German shepherds. Customs officials say their beagles have a 90 percent success rate and the ability to recognize almost 50 different smells.
The Cuteness Factor
In the mid-1980s, the federal customs agency started substituting beagles for dogs like German shepherds for agriculture detection work. Some travelers may find police-type dogs frightening and fear being bitten. It’s also hard for these larger dogs to move through crowded areas like baggage claims. Being adorable helps beagles do their job.
At the airport on a recent Wednesday, Tess and Baymon doggedly sniffed their way through stacks of luggage at a baggage carousel. As they looked on, some passengers were surprised to learn detection beagles start off as pound puppies.
“That’s fantastic,” said Debbie Ozier, 51, a St. Louis-area resident who fosters dogs for rescue groups. She watched as Baymon took a second whiff of a nearby woman’s bag, suddenly sat down and patiently waited for Gonzalez to make the next move.
“Show me,” Gonzalez said quietly. Baymon, intent but calm, put its paw on her bag. The woman, when politely questioned, opened and showed she had tea and herbs. Both were legal. “He just has a … cuteness!” Ozier said, as Baymon trotted off.