Utilising the best noses in biosecurity

6 September 2021

Australia’s biosecurity detector dog unit has evolved over many years, with the dogs now being trained to detect specific cargo pests and taking part in trials to screen passengers for COVID-19.

Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment and Australia’s Director of Biosecurity, Mr Andrew Metcalfe AO, said the dogs have continued to be a vital part of Australia’s biosecurity frontline.

“There have been significant changes in how the detector dogs are selected, trained and deployed, and this has helped us manage growing biosecurity risks,” Mr Metcalfe said.

“Initially, our dogs were selected from pounds and private breeders, and were only deployed at airports to screen passengers.

“We now select dogs from the Australian Border Force (ABF) Detector Dog breeding program, which are bred specifically for detection roles and this has supported us in deploying dogs into airports, mail centres and seaports.

“We have partnered with researchers to ensure we are picking the best dogs for the job, which has improved the success rate for dogs selected for training.”

Head of Biosecurity and Compliance at the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, Andrew Tongue, said the dogs are now also being trained to target pests and diseases. 

“Our detector dogs are being utilised for new and innovative purposes – which is helping manage growing biosecurity threats posed by specific pests,” Mr Tongue said.

“We now have detector dogs screening imported cargo in Brisbane and Perth to detect brown marmorated stink bug (BMSB), which is a huge threat to Australia’s horticulture industry.

“There is still some work to do in this space, but the early signs are good, and we will look to expand this to other states in the future.

“More recently, the detector dogs have been part of a COVID-19 Feasibility Study, which is looking at their ability to detect COVID-19 in body odour. 

“This project is led by ABF in conjunction with the department, Adelaide University and South Australian Metropolitan Fire Service, with trials underway at Adelaide airport.

“This is all in addition to their regular day job, which sees them intercept tens of thousands of risk items at airports and mail centres each year.

“We are excited to see what is next for our detector dogs and will continue looking at ways to build and utilise their skills to strengthen our frontline defence against biosecurity threats.”