beagle brigade

These keen-nosed working dogs known as the Beagle Brigade, are experts at stopping contraband foods and plants at the border.

Keeping contraband foods and plants out the U.S. is a vitally important job. Detecting and confiscating prohibited agricultural items such as fruit and vegetables, meat products and plants from high-risk countries is the responsibility of U.S. Customs and Border Protection – and of dozens of teams of specially-trained beagles and their handlers.

The Beagle Brigade originated in 1984, when the USDA established a small program at the Los Angeles International Airport. It started with just one beagle who was trained to find plants and animal products in luggage and carry-ons after the arrival of international flights. Since then, the Beagle Brigade has expanded to include dozens of skilled teams patrolling airports, seaports and other border entry points, and even international mail facilities and cargo warehouses.

Why beagles?

A scent-trained dog can detect an odor in seconds, whereas his human handler would have to open and inspect each bag separately and might still miss an item. Beagles and beagle mixes are the preferred breed for this job because of their exceptional sense of smell, gentle disposition, non-threatening size and food drive. Humans have about five million scent receptors while beagles have over 220 million. So in the sniffing arena, beagles win, no contest! Their keen noses can sometimes even pick up the scents of things that don’t show up on x-rays.

The training process

All dogs in the Beagle Brigade are either rescues from shelters or donated by breeders or owners. Training takes ten to 13 weeks and is all positive. It takes place at the National Detector Dog Training Center in Orlando, Florida, where the beagles are tested for a high food drive, reactions to crowded noisy situations, and their ability to maintain focus on the job.

“The first time I went through training, it was a ten-week class,” says Anita Hartman, Agricultural Specialist Canine Handler at the Port of Chicago. “When that dog retired, I went back for a four-week refresher course and another dog. Class size is small and there are more dogs than people. We rotate so each person works with each dog to find the best match between dog and handler. Instructors take a lot of time to see how we work together.”

The dogs start with typical nosework training. They’re taught to give a passive or active alert; sitting quietly by a box with the correct scent, or pawing at it. Beef, citrus and mango are the first scents they learn. “They naturally want more treats, so they teach themselves about new items,” says Anita, who has been part of the Beagle Brigade for 11 years; her current beagle partner is named Dino. “The dogs think ‘If I get a treat for an orange, would I get one for leaves?’ and alert us to new trends.” It’s easy for foreign pests to hitch a ride on leaves, and that could lead to a devastating loss of crops in the U.S.

On the job

Beagle brigade dino
Dino is all smiles on the job.

The training facility is a quieter environment than a busy airport, so before a Beagle Brigade team can graduate, they have to work at an airport in the midst of constant distractions — people wanting to pet the dog, announcements being made, people rushing by, and arrivals forgetting they brought a couple of burritos home in case of a hunger emergency.

Like the burrito-bearing folks above, most of the people who Beagle Brigade teams stop aren’t even aware they’re carrying contraband, according to Anita. “When we ask ‘do you have food in your bag?’ a tired traveler may say no. If we ask ‘do you have an apple in your bag?’ the answer might be yes. To someone who has been on a plane for hours, they’re two different questions.”

Along with being able to detect things x-ray machines can miss, the beagles also find contraband that’s in plain sight, but which their handlers might not notice. “Returning from Hawaii, I got tagged by one of the dogs,” says traveler Suzanne Furesz. “The handler and I didn’t know what was wrong. I didn’t have food or plants with me but the dog insisted. Then we noticed the dog was focused on my face. I had forgotten I had a real flower tucked in my hair. I swear the dog gave us an ‘I told you so’ look!”

Experienced detector dogs have a 90% success rate and can recognize and remember approximately 50 different smells. “Their cuteness is deceiving,” Anita says. “They’re here to do a real job and they take the work seriously. My first dog, Gidget, once sniffed the luggage of a man arriving from China, who said he was bringing in decorations for his restaurant. What he actually had was mangrove tree roots, spray painted purple, blue and green to look like plastic. Even though Gidget wasn’t specifically trained to find mangrove roots, she alerted.”

Anita says that Dino is as amazing as Gidget. “He was the best choice for me. He loves to sniff and find his target. We get to see people from all over the world, work together and protect the U.S. food supply. We have the best job ever!”


Sandra Murphy lives in St Louis, Missouri. When she's not writing, she works as a pet sitter.