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Detection Dogs profiled on NBC Bay Area

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There was a time when Hawkeye the dog stood amidst the humblest of life’s predicaments.

He was confined to a kennel in Georgia, his days playing-out in a small concrete cell.

But this was one of those occasions where fate interceded, drawing open a rusted chain link door to an unpredicted path. In this case, Hawkeye’s keen nose led him to a new life as an agriculture-sniffing canine sleuth.

“Hawkeye finds a lot of things there’s no way we would’ve been able to find,” said Tino Menchaca, Hawkeye’s handler with the Santa Clara Agricultural Department.

Hawkeye was enlisted as one of 13 dogs employed by California’s Agriculture Department to sniff unmarked shipping parcels; looking for plants, produce and seeds sent in defiance of the state’s agricultural quarantine.

The plants can harbor invasive insects that can pose a dire threat to California’s $43 billion agricultural industry.

“The dogs in this last fiscal year hit on 124 packages that had detrimental, nasty, nasty pests that we don’t want in California,” said Michelle Thom, deputy agricultural commissioner with Santa Clara County.

Every day Hawkeye and Menchaca, his agricultural biologist-handler, comb the warehouses of UPS, FedEx, and the U.S Postal Service. Hawkeye sweeps through shipping boxes, darting past the ones with perfume, beef jerky and other confusing scents – alighting on one which he begins to scratch and leap around.

That box will normally hold items like oranges sent from a Florida backyard, mangoes from India or other exotic fruits.

“Recently there’s a citrus pest called citrus psyllid,” said Menchaca. “If that one gets loose in our county it can cause a lot of damage to the citrus.”

The dogs have intercepted numerous packages containing fruit flies – a major concern to farmers in the Bay Area’s vineyards. Most of the package senders are oblivious to the state’s laws, said Thom.

In many cases sending plants, seeds and produce is permitted, as long as the box is marked. That alerts agricultural inspectors to check those boxes.

“It’s the parcels that aren’t marked, the parcels people have no idea there’s an agricultural quarantine against these products,” said Thom. “These dogs will let us know, hey, this package has agricultural products in it.”

The dogs work several two-hour shifts a day, with a break in between. They undergo weekly training to make sure they don’t seek out the wrong type of products. The dogs can work up to eight years before they’re retired, and can then be adopted by their handlers.

During their working years, the dogs spend their off-hours in kennels and dog hotels, often kept away from socially mingling with other dogs.

But on Wednesday, 12 of the state’s 13 agricultural dogs and their handlers gathered in San Jose for the annual group training. When the dogs weren’t racing around a warehouse sniffing packages, they sniffed and chased each other around the parking lot.

A photographer hired by the state snapped a group photo and then individual pictures of the dogs and their humans. Menchaca posed with Hawkeye, who ignored the photographer’s dramatic gestures to get him to face the camera – a reluctant star agent, now far removed from his days of struggle.

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