Commentary: On the “hunt” in California citrus groves

Commentary: On the “hunt” in California citrus groves

If canines prove to be guardians of established citrus plantings, they will join a line-up of researchers and scientists who have applied their talents to protecting one of California’s historic agricultural industries.

The Asian citrus psyllid (ACP) and the disease it carries represent perhaps the worst threat to the California citrus industry in its colorful history. Pulling out all the stops to control the insect includes something we all know and love – dogs.

In June, a team of researchers mostly from Florida visited several prominent citrus production sites in California with a group of dogs known for their ability to sniff out a different troublesome insect pest, the one that spreads citrus canker.

The dogs were being evaluated for their ability to detect the ACP or the disease it carries known as Huanglongbing or HLB.  The easier identification is citrus greening.

Since some of the dogs don’t speak English, the researchers expect it to take a few weeks to translate the data before reporting to industry leaders. The researchers from the U. S. Department of Agriculture accompanied by others from the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the University of California are proceeding cautiously.

In Florida, the researchers learned to employ the unusually acute sense of smell that dogs possess to locate trees in citrus groves that were infected by citrus canker. The dogs led them to the sick trees early on before any of the canker’s ugly symptoms appeared.

One of the exercises involved handlers trotting their dogs through established plantings of citrus trees, allowing each detector dog to follow its nose. Dogs in the trials consistently approached infected trees and expended powerful, embracing sniffs as they reached their destinations.

Usually they responded by approaching an infected tree and sitting down, smiling knowingly, as only dogs can do.           

As the projects continued, researchers found that the same exercises resulted in the dogs approaching trees “stung” by ACP. Extending that experience and verifying the accuracy of several different dogs has brought the research to its present state.

Learning if the dogs perform in California citrus plantings in a similar fashion to their reactions in Florida is part of the current study.

If the canines prove to be guardians of established citrus plantings, they will join a line-up of dedicated and accomplished researchers and scientists who have applied their talents to protecting one of California’s historic, and at the same time glamorous and economically vigorous, agricultural industries.

The campaign against ACP has brought the entire support team of the citrus industry to the table. Members have investigated everything from citrus nursery procedures and practices to orchard equipment, shipping containers, and post-harvest handling facilities to find the path(s) the tiny insect uses to devastate healthy, productive trees.

As part of the team, growers have analyzed every practice they employ, wondering if some time worn, day-to-day procedure might leave the door open for the psyllid to enter. In all of the investigation, the one conclusion at the end of every study or experiment is that the presence of ACP and the disease it carries is lethal.

As knowing as the dogs in the process are, their demeanor as they perform their duties is consistently cheerful and friendly. Unlike canines trained for pursuit or detention of criminals, they refuse to exhibit signs of aggression or belligerence.

Some of the breeds employed resemble those used in police work, such as German Shepherds or similar breeds, often from neighboring European countries. Seemingly harmless and friendly breeds such as Beagles are being tested as well.

The dedicated researchers are spared one dog-related teaching employed by millions of domestic dog owners, teaching the dog to “speak” on command. Careful observation of these dogs’ behaviors hopefully replaces that and reveals what researchers need to know.

Of course, whenever that happens treats will be welcome, just like at home. 

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