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Beagle Brigade Hounds Smugglers

by Jim Barlow (Houston Chronicle)
[[wysiwyg_imageupload:355:]] They're really cute. But that's not why they're there.

If you've flown from a foreign country into the Bush Intercontinental Airport you may have seen them. A couple of small dogs -- Beagles wearing green coats with the words Beagle Brigade. They're working the baggage claim area where international travelers pick up their luggage before going through customs.

by Jim Barlow (Houston Chronicle)
They're really cute. But that's not why they're there.

If you've flown from a foreign country into the Bush Intercontinental Airport you may have seen them. A couple of small dogs -- Beagles wearing green coats with the words Beagle Brigade. They're working the baggage claim area where international travelers pick up their luggage before going through customs.

Those dogs -- and their handlers -- are employees of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. They're looking for what the USDA calls invasive species -- critters from another place that can cause trouble here.

Over the past 200 years, we've seen several thousand foreign plant and animal species become established in this country. The USDA estimates they cause about $140 billion a year in damage.

Today, most of those invasive species arrive in the luggage of international travelers. The USDA works closely with commercial importers of food, for example, to hold down dangers there. The mango you buy in the grocery store has been treated with hot water to kill any pests it might contain. The mango you pick in someone's back yard in Mexico is the one that has the bad news.

But if you try it at Intercontinental, you're going to have to deal with Sam and April. And Dennis and Pat.

That's Dennis Brillhart and his Beagle partner Sam, and Pat Sheffield and April, the Beagle. They're plant protection K-9 officers at Intercontinental. All of them.

Sheffield and Brillhart get paid more. But then again, both go beyond the basic requirements for their job and have science-based master's degrees. April and Sam? They work for dog treats.

THE WAY TO A DOG'S HEART...

That's one of the reasons why Beagles were chosen to do the job of sniffing out food brought into this country by travelers. Like most dogs, they have a keen nose for odors. But additionally, Beagles just love to eat. So when they successfully ferret out food they get a small dog treat to encourage them to find more.

Since they tend to average about 20 hits a day, the officers have to cut usual dog treats into small bits. "Otherwise," quips Sheffield, "the dogs would get too fat to fit into their cages."

The Beagles are trained to find not just food, but specific kinds of foods. You may legally bring into this country fish, cheese, bread, candy and a wide range of other food items -- just as long as they are processed and won't cause problems.

So, the dogs, who come mostly from animal shelters all over the nation, go to school for about three months to learn to distinguish what odors are no-nos. Dogs are then matched with their handlers to learn how to work together. When the dogs reach two-thirds of their average 15-year lifespan, they are retired and homes are found for them -- often with their long-time handlers.

Of course the dogs are only a tool, like the large X-ray machines other USDA staffers at airport use to look inside checked baggage. Say the dogs spot something and it's bananas. Now, bringing in bananas from South America is OK. Bananas brought from other areas aren't. A two-legged USDA staffer makes the final judgment.

'FESS UP OR FACE A FINE

Last week, I watched April and Sam work the baggage. Tails wagging, they found friends everywhere. Who's afraid of a 20-pound Beagle -- another reason why they're chosen. Usually, their handlers don't mind if you give them a pat or two. But don't pat the larger dogs looking for drugs. A drug dog's reward isn't food but play from their handlers. Patting them distracts them from their work.

If April or Sam finds something in your luggage or back pack, they'll just sit down. Sheffield or Brillhart will look at your customs form to see if you've declared that food. If there's no mention of it, they'll ask. Tell them. If you do, and it's something that shouldn't be coming into this country, they'll just confiscate and destroy it. Try to conceal it and and you're going to be hit with an on-the-spot fine up to $100.

That happened to a woman the day I was there who concealed some fruit in a fried chicken container.

The dogs find all sorts of weird things. A couple of weeks ago, someone decided to bring back a live chicken in carry-on luggage. Not something exotic like a fighting cock. Just an ordinary hen.

Brillhart and Sheffield have worked together enough so that they tend to finish each other's sentences. When asked about their canine partners, Brillhart says, "If our dogs could write a report," and Sheffield finishes, "we wouldn't have a job."

Beagle Teams for Houston International Airport, TX
Michele Sowell & Crockett
Dennis Brillhart & Sam
Pat Sheffield & April

Should you have a concern regarding the health of your Beagle(s), you should contact your veterinarian. All information on this site is presented solely for educational and informational purposes and should not, at any time, be considered a substitute for seeking or receiving veterinary care for your Beagle(s).