The inspectors of Mendoza's Agricultural Health and Quality Institute (ISCAMEN) are responsible for preventing the entry of possible pest transmitters, a task that they do with the help of 10 dogs that accompany them. The dogs, which are specially trained to detect organic matter, patrol the nearly 4,000 vehicles entering the province each day, and the luggage of nearly 20 daily flights, to prevent the entry of vegetables contaminated with the Mediterranean fruit fly.
11 years ago, Iscamen's Canine Division began the difficult task of training labradors and beagles so that they could identify illegal shipments of fruits and vegetables. At first the division only had four dogs from Rio Negro, but over time the division grew until it reached the current numbers. Currently, all the dogs in the division are born, raised, and trained in Mendoza.
"We work with beagles and labradors because they have a very good sense of smell, respond well to the training we've given them, and are very sociable. We could work with other breeds, such as the German shepherd, but we favor these breeds because we have to work with people and these dogs do not intimidate them during inspections. This feature is essential to control sanitary barriers," said Jorge Spitaliere, head of the Canine Division.
Spitaliere speaks proudly of the achievements of his dogs and the training that the 6 beagles and 4 labradors currently working on phytosanitary controls received. "These dogs learn by association. We select the puppies and the fastest learning dogs for the training. Despite being of the same breed, we have to make a selection within the litter because every puppy has different characteristics," he says.
Training begins when the puppies are 4 or 5 months old, but that can also depend on their precocity.
"We want them to recognize the fruits that are susceptible to the Mediterranean fly. When we start the training we teach them to detect the aromas of stone fruits, such as peach, apricot, and plum, as well as citrus fruits, pome fruits, such as apples, pears, and grapes and figs. Pepper and mango are also susceptible to Medfly. We then teach the dogs to sit down when they detect these scents. So whenever they detect any of these scents they let us know by sitting next to the baggage containing these fruits," said Spitaliere.
"The dog learns by play and when he achieves a goal he is rewarded with a toy or food," he said.
The dogs sniff luggage in three key health barriers: in Arco Desaguadero -where an average of 2,500 vehicles enter Mendoza per day - at the checkpoint of San Jose, on the border with San Juan - where nearly 1,200 vehicles reach the province every day, and at the airport El Plumerillo, which has an average of 20 flights a day. "We've established controls at these points as the influx they have make them the most important ones," said the president of Iscamen, Alejandro Molero.
"The division has special kennels and a training area where instructors work with the dogs every day. The process to get them ready takes one year," said Molero.
Snouts at the airport
Two beagles are responsible for controlling the baggage that is downloaded from every plane that arrives in Mendoza's renewed local airport. The dogs sniff each suitcase and bag passing through the conveyor belt, and assist the Iscamen inspectors.
"We have two scanners at the airport. The dogs cooperate with the inspectors checking the large luggage traveling in the airplane's hold. Passenger's pick up their luggage and, as they exit the room, they pass through a scanner and we check their handbags. Their luggage was already checked by the dogs, which speeds passenger traffic," Spitaliere said.
From work to school
Throughout the year Iscamen inspectors visit different schools to show young students the work they perform with the dogs. Before going to these schools, the students receive some teaching material. Then, the inspectors visit the schools with their dogs and perform eye-catching displays.
"We focus on the explaining the importance of preventing the entry of unauthorized merchandise and protecting our production against pests," Molero stated.
"The exhibits are educational and allow children to interact with dogs. Generally, the children get to hide some fruit in several backpacks and the dogs get to find them," he said.
Spitaliere is fascinated by this work to raise awareness and by the students' response to it. "We are creating awareness in children, and not only in them, because they convey this information in their homes and spread it around. Little by little, the society starts becoming aware that they must not bring fruit. The kids response has been wonderful," Spitaliere said.
The dogs that detect fruits and vegetables work an average of 9 years. After having worked protecting the provinces agricultural production for that period of time, they retire.
"We've try to pair up each dog so that they work with their trainers, as this gives good results. It is essential that they are partners," Spitaliere stated. "The trainer knows in detail all the signs that the dogs sometimes do."
"A month ago a labrador who worked for almost 9 years retired. When they get to that age, they retire and go live with a family that adopts them," he stated.
Usually, the dogs are adopted by the inspectors that worked with them and take them to their homes, but this time just to take care and love them so that they enjoy their retirement.