Dogs detect potato diseases
Nose Knows Scouting Founder Andrea Parish uses dogs to sniff out potato diseases.
Dogs have been used for many tasks such as finding bombs, drugs, lost people and even detecting cancer in human patients several months before medical tests are able to. But no one had ever trained dogs to detect potato diseases.
Parish has trained many dogs and wanted to train one to do search and rescue in Wyoming.
“I did a two-week intensive certification course with a hound named Alva, which had been taught by a former Federal Bureau of Investigation specialist. I was ready to start doing search and rescue but the dog injured a knee and needed surgery,” Parish says.
The dog recovered, but Parish was looking for something else the dog might be able to do.
Starting a detecting business
“My husband is a consultant in the potato business. I asked him if anyone was using dogs to detect disease in potato crops, and he said nobody was,” she explains.
Farmers use visual detection of diseases such as potato virus Y (PVY) and bacterial ring rot (BRR), but these are not visible until after the potatoes are seriously infected, she notes.
“Dogs are much better at detecting most things; their nose is much better than our eyes. I partnered with a university to start training dogs to do this, and then COVID-19 hit and the university was shut down,” explains Parish. “I reached out to University of Idaho Extension Plant Virologist Alex Karasev and asked him for some PVY, and he was able to supply me with some plant material.”
The dogs learned the odor in about two weeks. Currently farms hire Parish to check for potato diseases, she mentions.
“It takes humans about 16 weeks to learn how to handle the dogs. However, the team – the handler and the dog – is what is most important,” she explains.
Canine partners and process
Her dog Raya, a Vizsla-lab cross, sniffs out ring rot and can quickly and easily check an entire storage area and the equipment in it before new seed potatoes are brought in.
“We will eventually sell trained dogs to farmers, and the farmer would have to go through one of our handling schools. Our dogs are certified, just like a bomb dog, to show they can do what we say they can do,” Parish says.
Parish has traveled to several dozen farms across the country, from Oregon to Maine, demonstrating how dogs can sniff and detect all three strains of PVY as well as BRR. Farmers can also send potato samples to her for her dogs to test.
The dogs enjoy their work – it is like a game. However, only about one percent of dogs can do this, and the hard part is finding a dog to be trained to detect the diseases.
They can all detect odors, but most of them are not interested in showing what they are finding, she notes.
“We put the dogs through a week of testing to see if they will work out,” Parish says. “We often have dogs we have trained on odor and they know it well, but they are not interested in showing us.”
So far, she has had to drop two dogs from the program. One is now living a good life as a pet and the other is a bird dog – which she loves doing.
The key is finding what the dog really wants to do, and some breeds are better at this job than others, she shares.
“Hounds are more suitable for tracking rather than for target odors. A good dog is 99 percent accurate; however, PCR testing for potato diseases is only about 30 percent accurate because of a small sample size,” Parish says.
“The dogs checking for ring rot can sweep an entire storage unit or truck, like a bomb dog, whereas a farmer can only swab samples,” she shares. “The dog is much more efficient and can check a much larger area, saving a lot of time.”
When checking a bin or field, dogs don’t have to check each potato or plant. They go right past the ones not infected; they can smell it from a distance.
Her preference is to have the dogs check the tubers before they are planted, rather than waiting and checking the planted field.
“Dogs can detect it in the tuber 48 hours after inoculation. This way producers can start off with a much cleaner field. After the plants are about a foot high, the dogs are no faster than the scouts and have to walk each row,” she explains.
“The dogs walk each row like a scout would, but they are simply sniffing for odor, which is a lot easier than having to visually check the plants. The dogs don’t need the visual,” she says.
“As the plants get taller, the odor is harder for the dogs to detect, so we like to go out in the fields when the plants are just popping out of the ground,” she mentions. “But we prefer to check the tubers before they are ever planted.”
Parish says this is just another tool for potato growers. It won’t replace PCR or enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay testing, but the dogs are very accurate and efficient. This can give producers another layer of confidence in ensuring product is clean and free of diseases.
A dog can check 40 acres in 20 minutes and detect an infected one-inch-high plant from about 80 feet away, she notes.
Parish has since been hired to work with several state seed potato certification programs, and she will also be helping individual potato seed growers.
Heather Smith Thomas is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.