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Customs, Border Patrol train pound puppies to work at airports

Their purpose is to flag illegal plants, produce, food and pests being brought in by travelers that could spread disease or harm American crops and livestock


By Diane C. Lade
Sun Sentinel

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Not long ago, Tess and Baymon were homeless cast-offs without much of a future.

Today, they are respected federal specialists stationed at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and tasked with protecting our nation as agriculture detection canines.

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agriculture specialist Alberto Gonzalez and his K-9 partner Baymon find a bag of prohibited pieces of cut sugar cane in a duffel bag at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017. (Amy Beth Bennett/Sun Sentinel/TNS)
U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agriculture specialist Alberto Gonzalez and his K-9 partner Baymon find a bag of prohibited pieces of cut sugar cane in a duffel bag at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017. (Amy Beth Bennett/Sun Sentinel/TNS)

The dogs, which sometimes work at Palm Beach International Airport too, can hunt down potentially dangerous contraband faster and more accurately than their two-legged partners. They never complain and are dedicated to their jobs.

Tess and Baymon are part of the Beagle Brigade, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection unit staffed by 118 dog-and-handler teams nationwide. Their purpose is to flag illegal plants, produce, food and pests being brought in by travelers that could spread disease or harm American crops and livestock. Almost every one of these hard-working, highly trained hounds came from an animal shelter or rescue group, or was donated by a family or breeder.

“They are getting a second chance at life,” said Cassandre Boeri, Tess’ customs agriculture specialist canine handler. “Tess is why I want to come to work every day … The passengers love her.”

Miami International Airport — where official Beagle Brigade posters feature a spokesdog warning travelers about produce, animal and plant restrictions — has 10 agriculture detection dogs. Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood customs officials hope to add a third dog this year and occasionally send Baymon or Tess to Palm Beach International, which doesn’t have its own in-house team.

Getting a rough start in life apparently doesn’t slow down these pups. In fiscal year 2016, the Beagle Brigade prompted 162,000 seizures of illegal and potentially dangerous food, pests and animal products nationwide, according to federal statistics. Dogs at South Florida’s airports and seaports scored 8,000 of those hits.

For the dogs, “it’s not work. It’s like playing hide-and-seek,” said Alberto Gonzalez, the customs agriculture specialist who is Baymon’s handler.

Exotic fruits are Tess and Baymon’s usual finds, as they sniff more than 2,000 pieces of luggage coming off international flights during their daily six-hour shifts. They find other edibles, too — including goat, iguana, ants and crickets.

Public relations also is part of their job description. Like their handlers, Baymon and Tess wear uniforms. Baymon has a full, bright-colored vest with the phrase “Protecting America’s Agriculture,” while the more petite Tess sports a simple black harness labeled “Customs.”

They have business cards that their handlers distribute to passengers. Their official portraits are on one side and personal profiles on the other, with tidbits like “favorite odor”and “best trick.”

Tess’ pet peeve: “Passengers whistling at me.”

Baymon’s main dislike? “Don’t touch me when I’m working.”

The Fort Lauderdale dogs, both about 5 years old today, were discovered by the National Detector Dog Training Center in Newnan, Ga., run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. The center trains and supplies canines for 24 agencies, including customs here and abroad, to detect everything from a specific beetle’s dung to citrus canker to rhino horn.

The center checks out 300 to 500 potential recruits a year, all beagles or labrador retrievers, director Michael Smith said.

The recruits “must be spot-on in all our criteria,” Smith said. That means they must have no fear of escalators or sliding glass doors, and be 10 months to 3 years old, social, focused and healthy. Of course, they must be willing to work very, very hard for treats.

About 75 make the cut and of those, 55 to 65 complete six months of rigorous training. The ones that flunk out are adopted out of the center. “We send no dogs back to shelters,” Smith said.

Finally, it’s matchmaking time. Potential handlers identified by their customs offices go to the center and — in speed-dating style — are paired with the canine graduates they click with. Then the pairs must undergo another one to three months of center training as a couple before the dog-handler team is ready for action.

The labradors go to port warehouses. The beagles report to airports, where they patrol the areas where passengers deplaning from international flights clear customs and claim their luggage.

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 had been bred 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. When it comes to a knowing nose, beagles definitely stand out, said Carnell Green, field canine enforcement trainer at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood airport.

The compact breed has 220 scent receptors, 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.

Green also works with airport dogs trained to detect narcotics and currency, which typically are larger breeds often used for police work, like shepherds and Belgian malinois. Almost none of these dogs are rescues and come from professional breeders, he said, and are trained at different centers than agriculture dogs.

In the mid-1980s, the federal customs agency started substituting beagles for dogs like German shepherds for agriculture detection work.

One reason: Some travelers may find police-type canines frightening and fear being bitten, Green said. It’s also hard for these larger dogs to move through crowded areas like baggage claims.

There’s also the adorable factor. “People say, ‘Oh look! He’s sitting, he’s so cute!’ People then are a lot more cooperative when you ask them to see their luggage,” said Green, who has a small pawprint tattooed on his right hand.

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 returning from a trip to the Turks and Caicos islands who fosters dogs for rescue groups. She watched as Baymon took a second whiff of a nearby woman’s satchel, 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.

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©2017 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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