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Dogs saving Florida's citrus trees from catastrophic disease

Posted: 6:56 AM, Feb 24, 2020
Updated: 2020-02-24 18:24:37-05

PALM COAST, Fla. — An unconventional trend is moving across the state to find disease in Florida citrus trees.

Dogs are being used for their keen sense of smell to hunt this catastrophic and costly problem before it spreads. If you blink, you may miss it. That's how fast the dogs are trying to find it.

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“It still blows my mind they are able to do this,” says dog handler Tyler Meck of F1K9 out of Palm Coast, Florida.

Meck and his K-9 Tania are on the verge of something big and they're just getting started with plenty of practice all day and every day. The pair has been together for several weeks now training to find citrus greening.

“It's work, it's a hobby. I want this to take off and go somewhere,” says Meck.

Much like finding drugs or explosives, the dogs begin in a room with a target in a box, then advance to a field filled with plants like squash and watermelon plants.

“You're hiding an infected plant among 50 or 100 uninfected plants and it’s a big shell game until the dog learns that it can pick it up,” says Dr. Tim Gottwald, an epidemiologist for the US Department of Agriculture.

K-9 Tania works lightning fast until she traces a scent of disease. Then she inhales deeply, snapping back into a sitting position in front of the infected plant. The dogs are always rewarded with play, never food.

Day after day the same test shows the same result until training advances to an actual citrus grove where citrus greening has left an invisible, costly mark.

One dog searching one crop in Fort Pierce can make a huge difference when you consider the economic value of what's happening. Millions of dollars are at stake.

“In 2003-2004 citrus production in the state of Florida was about 243 million boxes, last year (2019) it was about 70 million boxes,” says Gottwald.

About 70 percent of Florida's industry has been destroyed. Yet this highly advanced early detection system with a nose to the ground may hold the most potential for slowing the suffocation of these plants.

“We're the only ones in the world that are doing this right now, says Meck.

It is a method proven to be early enough in order to get ahead of the infection, isolate it, remove it and control the epidemic.

“Much the same as Coronavirus lately, it is locating it, taking people out of the population so they are not contaminating the rest of the population,” says Gottwald.

It takes roughly six months to get a dog fully trained. Thirty have been certified so far and most are the Belgian Malinois breed. More will be deployed as greening has spread to parts of Texas and California.