Trained dogs set to sniff out deadly citrus disease in California

They’ve been used to detect drugs, bombs and bugs.

Now a team of specially trained dogs will put their wet noses to work in California, sniffing out a fatal citrus disease with the potential to cripple the state’s $3.4 billion citrus industry.

The crew of 19 canines and their trainers have spent months getting ready for what many hope is an important step toward preventing the disease, known as huanglongbing, or HLB, from invading the state’s commercial citrus groves.

Farmers, scientists and industry leaders don’t want what happened in Florida to happen here.

The tree-killing disease has ravaged Florida’s once mighty citrus industry, costing growers more than $2.9 billion and forcing the destruction of hundreds of thousands of trees. Spread by a tiny insect called the Asian citrus psyllid, scientists have yet to discover a cure for the disease.

In California, HLB is present in more than 800 backyard citrus trees in Southern California. But, luckily for growers, it has failed to hitchhike its way north to the San Joaquin Valley, the heart of the state’s citrus industry. And that’s exactly how citrus industry officials want it.

Gary Schulz, president of the Citrus Research Board in Visalia, is heavily involved in bringing the U.S. Department of Agriculture dogs to California. Schulz is helping to craft a plan for where the dogs will begin their detection work.

“The USDA has invested millions of dollars in detector dogs and they have proven to be a credible diagnostic tool for early detection and screening trees,” Schulz said.

Schulz said it’s likely the dogs will start in Southern California where the disease has gained a foothold in people’s backyards. They will also be put to work at one of the University of California’s main citrus research centers, the Lindcove Research and Extension Center in eastern Tulare County.

Visits are also possible in commercial groves in Tulare and Fresno counties, where insect has been found, but not the disease, Schulz said.

Sally, a former rescue dog, puts her nose to work sniffing out a vial with bedbugs hidden in an office space at Canine Detection Services, with president Lisa Finke, Thursday Sept. 6, 2018. The dogs specialize in finding pests, rodents and hopefully the fatal citrus disease HLB, the fatal citrus disease. JOHN WALKER

Scientists and dog trainers say the value of using canines is they can detect the disease in its early stages and they are highly accurate, nearly 100 percent in some field trials. Early detection is key because the sooner growers can identify the disease, the better chance they have of preventing the spread.

What the dogs actually smell is not entirely known. Dog trainer Pepe Peruyero of J&K Canine Academy in Florida said he believes infected trees have a signature odor the dogs can detect. And they do it quickly. Conventional methods of detection involve taking samples of leaves and testing them in a lab.

Peruyero’s dogs are trained to detect HLB and citrus canker in Florida and Texas. Although his canines aren’t the ones the U.S. Department of Agriculture is using, he is very familiar with the HLB Multi-Agency Coordination program that is overseeing the training and deployment of the dogs.

“The ability of these dogs to work in this area is amazing and sadly it is one of the least tapped resources we have,” Peruyero said. “It is important for California to know that.”

Local dog trainer Lisa Finke, president of Canine Detection Services in Fresno, hopes to be involved in the hunt for HLB. Finke has three dogs that she uses to track down bed bugs and rodents.

She trains the dogs by pairing the specific scent of their target with a reward of a toy or food. Once the dog learns the scent of the what it’s after, it will do everything it can to find it in order to earn its reward.

Two of her dogs, Sherlock Holmes, a beagle and Sally, a pit bull mix, are experts at finding bed bugs. Her third dog, Nala, is a Patterdale Terrier, and is a rat and mice hunter. Finke would like to be involved in the testing or training of the disease-sniffing dogs..

“I saw this coming to California and I knew it was going to be a problem, that’s why I wanted to be involved in some way,”

Finke said. “I come from a farming family and when I learned about HLB, I know it was a serious threat.”

Robert Rodriguez: 559-441-6327, @FresnoBeeBob