Some dogs sniff out bombs. Some dogs sniff out drugs. Ryder sniffs out invasive pests and diseases in food coming across the border for the United States Department of Agriculture.
Ryder, a black labrador about 3 years old, came to the shelter in October. When no one claimed him, he was recruited to the USDA program Nov. 5.
Dogs like Ryder train six to 12 months and must meet specific standards before even being considered for the job.
The dog’s focus, attention span and sense of smell are evaluated, said Cindy Langman, program coordinator at the Hall County Animal Shelter, who added that representatives from the USDA program visit the Hall shelter a few times per year.
“It’s very important that the dog is attentive — you see such a wide variety of animals here at the shelter and they get so distracted wanting to look around, but they want a dog that’s very focused on them,” Langman said. “The handlers will take a treat or toy and move it around to judge their eye contact and how attentive the dog is being … apparently Ryder fit the bill.”
Occasionally some dogs don’t pass the training period, but Ryder did well, Langman said.
Now, he “works on the Southern border in Texas inspecting various conveyances for prohibited food items that may contain invasive pests and diseases,” said Michael L. Smith, director of the USDA’s National Detector Dog Training Center.
Smith last week sent a letter of thanks to the Hall shelter for Ryder and the care he received.
"We would like to express our gratitude for your allocation of canine Ryder, which has ultimately allowed us to continue the mission of protecting the health and value of American agriculture and natural resources," he wrote.
Ryder is housed in the program’s commercial kennel, which has very strict guidelines, Smith added.
The program, known as the “Beagle Brigade,” started in 1984. Beagles are the ambassador for the program and were determined as the best suited breed, though obviously they are not the only breeds in the program.
The program from the beginning looked at animal shelters along with private donors and breeders for beagles that met the standards.
“I think it is so impressive that they consider shelter dogs,” Langman said.
Smith said most dogs are donated, but they do purchase them if needed.
In addition to the USDA, other dogs from the training program can be placed at airports or private companies like FedEx or UPS.