The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry detector dogs make an invaluable contribution to Australia’s biosecurity system, helping to protect Australia from exotic pests and diseases. Detector dogs are used in conjunction with several other biosecurity strategies and detection tools to help protect Australia’s agricultural industries, environment, economy and human health. The department’s detector dog teams are deployed across a variety of locations including international passenger terminals, seaports and mail facilities.
Why is the role of detector dogs so important?
The role of biosecurity detector dogs helping to protect Australia from exotic pests and disease is becoming increasingly important. The number of international passengers, cargo and mail items arriving in Australia is growing every year. This places increasing pressure on existing biosecurity strategies and detection tools. Detector dogs are a fast, versatile and mobile detection tool that can screen across a range of environments. They play an important role in strengthening our biosecurity systems in response to a growing biosecurity threat.
How do we source our detector dogs?
Suitable Labradors are sourced from the Australian Border Force (ABF) detector dog breeding program. ABF breed and develop puppies to an age (12-18 months) at which they can commence formal detector dog training.
Detector dog training courses are conducted over an eight-week period at our national training facility in Brisbane. Throughout the course novice detector dogs are trained to detect a variety of biosecurity risk material ranging from meat, fresh plant material, seeds and fresh fruit.
Novice detector dogs that are unsuitable for the role of a biosecurity detector dog are returned to the ABF.
Novice detector dogs that successfully complete our department’s training program are placed with experienced handlers and deployed to operational environments upon graduation. Once deployed they undertake a further two months of transitional training working alongside other detector dogs.
What are detector dogs trained to find?
Detector dogs are trained to find items that could bring pests or diseases into Australia, such as certain food, plant material and animal products.
On average, our detector dogs can be expected to find up to 9,000 biosecurity risk items during their working life. The three most common items the detector dogs find are meat, seeds and fruit.
The Travelling or returning to Australia page lists some of the items that dogs are trained to detect as they pose a biosecurity threat to Australia.
We are continually looking at innovative ways to modernise our detector dog capabilities to strengthen our biosecurity system. Most recently, the department collaborated with researchers at the University of New England to optimise the training of biosecurity detector dogs to detect the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (BMSB). The BMSB is an insect pest that is not found in Australia. It is important to protect Australia against BMSB because they are a nuisance pest and pose a high risk to agricultural crops.
Where are detector dogs deployed?
Our detector dogs operate in international passenger terminals, seaports and mail facilities across Australia. Detector dogs are part of a suite of detection tools the department uses to detect, identify and intervene with biosecurity risk items at our borders. The versatility and flexibility of detector dogs allows us to rapidly shift deployment locations in response to emerging biosecurity risk and screening requirements nationally.
How are detector dogs and handlers trained?
Biosecurity detector dog training program
The eight-week detector dog training program is delivered by expert trainers at our purpose-built national training facility in Brisbane. The program exposes dogs to a wide range of deployment scenarios and focuses on building a positive association between target odours and the dog’s individual reward. The dog’s reward can be either a tasty treat, a game of tug-of-war or a simple pat, depending on the circumstances and individual dog.
Each dog is assessed for health and well-being concerns as well as its performance across a range of environments, target odours and eagerness to search. These measures are monitored and maintained throughout the dog’s career with formal validation exercises completed bi-annually.
Upon graduation novice dogs are teamed up with experienced handlers to ensure they are given the best support as they transition into live operational environments.
Biosecurity detector dog handler development program
The detector dog handler development program is delivered over a 12-week period and consists of four distinct stages.
Stage1. A two-week period of on-the-job familiarisation where the prospective handler shadows an existing operational detector dog team. This introduction period allows for the trainee handler to gain an understanding of day-to-day requirements of the role. They are required to complete a combination of online and practical training covering off animal welfare and basic deployment scenarios during this period.
Stage 2. A four-week intensive practical training course delivered at the national training facility in Brisbane. The course focuses on the theory behind dog training and its practical application. The course makes full use of the replicated environments available within the training facility and exposes trainee handlers to many of the challenges they can expect to encounter during normal operational deployments.
Stage 3. A further four-week period of on-the-job development and familiarisation in the trainee handlers primary work location, followed by:
Stage 4. A one week in the field program focused on advanced handler skills and problem-solving.
Trainee handlers are partnered with experienced detector dogs to support their transition to the operational environment. Just like their canine partners, each detector dog handler undergoes biannual validation exercises to ensure their skill set remains current and up-to-date.
Why do we use Labradors?
The purpose bred Labradors that make up the biosecurity detector dog program possess an extraordinary sense of smell, are co-operative, gentle with people and possess extreme hunt, food and retrieve drives.
These characteristics mean that the challenges of operational deployment (which include extended searches across multiple targets and locations) are something that the dogs consider to be great fun and rapidly become their favourite thing to do.
Labradors are also large and agile, making it easy for them to screen larger items at airports, seaports and mail centres.
How long do the dogs work for and what happens when they retire?
Our detector dogs generally work until around eight years of age.
When they finish working in their biosecurity role, they are placed into loving homes (in most cases with one of their handlers).
A brief history of biosecurity detector dogs
1991: Australia contracted a detector dog trainer from the US Department of Agriculture to help develop a pilot program in Australia
1992: In February the first two detector dog teams became operational in Sydney and Brisbane
1995: The department's detector dog operations were expanded by introducing active response dogs into international mail centres
2002: After ten years of operation the program had expanded to 26 teams including six teams undertaking state government biosecurity work
2009: Labradors were introduced into airport and seaport operations. Until this time only beagles were used as passive response detector dogs in these environments
2011: Based on the success of a pilot program conducted in Brisbane, conversion of passive response Labradors to multipurpose dogs commenced
2012: The department celebrated twenty years of detector dogs as a part of a smart, integrated biosecurity system in Australia
2015: First in-house training course delivered by the department for detector dog handlers
2016: First in-house training course delivered by the department for detector dogs
2018: The department trained its first detector dog to detect Brown Marmorated Stink Bug
2022: The department celebrates its 30th year of the Biosecurity detector dog program