By Madeline Bilis
December 04, 2019
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The holidays are a hectic few weeks for many of us, but perhaps most of all for a beagle mix named Denny. He’s a U.S. Customs and Border Protection detector dog at John F. Kennedy International Airport — the kind that trots around an airport’s baggage claim, sniffing your suitcases and backpacks.

For the next few weeks, “It’s chestnut time,” explains Amanda Tripple, Denny’s handler. (The festive snack is commonly confiscated this time of year.) With some 56,000 international travelers filtering through the New York airport each day, there are bound to be potentially harmful fruits, vegetables, nuts, and meat products in their luggage. It's Denny’s job to find it all, ultimately preventing pests or foreign animal diseases from entering the country.

The first time I met Denny, he pressed his head into my arms — his version of a hug, I assume. Judging by the dog hair on Tripple’s uniform, he gives them out a lot. Hugging aside, five-year-old Denny has laserlike focus. He and Tripple have found tens of thousands of prohibited items in his three years on the job, from butchered pigs to a package containing almost 50 pounds of mangoes. He often patrols flights coming in from places like Singapore, Germany, Finland, Jordan, and beyond.

Madeline Bilis

One morning this November, I followed Denny and Tripple as they approached a baggage carousel in Terminal 4. Almost immediately, Denny signaled Tripple to search of suitcase off a flight from Uzbekistan.

“Denny is a fast worker,” Tripple says. “He pulls a lot. Some beagles are more methodical, but not Denny.”

After stopping the passengers and their luggage, Tripple found and confiscated some sausages and a bag of fresh peppers — both prohibited from entering the U.S.

Madeline Bilis

Denny posed with his finds for me, appearing pleased.

Why beagles are the breed of choice for U.S. Customs and Border Protection

While watching Denny work, I thought of my own beagle at my parents’ house in Massachusetts. My sweet, lazy pup could certainly not save this country from an infestation of, say, Khapra beetles, which made me wonder — what makes this cute breed the best choice for sniffing around?

The short answer? It’s partly because they’re cute.

Their small size makes them ideal for passenger environments, says S. Terri Giannetti, who’s been raising beagles as show dogs since the 1980s. Passengers feel less intimidated by 22-pound beagles than, say, 72-pound German Shepherds, especially when they’re getting up close and personal with bags, purses, and other personal items.

“We call it the Snoopy effect,” says Giannetti, the owner of Beowulf Kennel in Virginia. “People see the beagle and go ‘Snoopy!’ Who doesn’t love Snoopy?”

Madeline Bilis

Their size and gentle temperaments are only part of the equation. Beagles, like Labrador retrievers and other breeds, are born with an innate desire to follow their noses. They have some 220 million scent receptors compared to a human’s paltry 400, and can sniff out carriers of invasive pets and diseases in a fraction of the time it’d take an officer to inspect every bag.

Beagles also have an incredibly strong food drive, explains Joseph Demalderis, acting supervisor of JFK’s K9 agricultural specialists. In other words, they’re willing to work for a reward in the form of a treat.

A short history of the Beagle Brigade

Beagles were put to work by the United States Department of Agriculture, or USDA, in 1984, when the first “Beagle Brigade” was created at Los Angeles International Airport. In 2000, Customs and Border Protection began employing larger dogs in non-passenger environments, like at cargo inspection facilities and borders. Today, there are about 120 canine teams working in airports, cruise terminals, mail facilities, cargo warehouses, and other ports of entry.

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The dogs are taught to seek out specific odors, which could be anything from a banana to a live snail. (A two-dog team in Atlanta recently prevented a pair of highly invasive Giant African Snails from entering the country.) Within seconds of detecting one of these odors, the dog sits in front of the bag or package.

Their work goes far beyond the reward of a cookie or two — protecting the U.S. from pests is serious business. If those Giant African Snails had made it through, they could have decimated farms (the snails eat at least 500 types of plants, according to the USDA) and even damaged buildings made of stucco or plaster.

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How beagles are trained to detect threats

All agricultural canines, no matter where they work, are rescue dogs. Those in the Beagle Brigade can start their initial training as young as 15 months. To do that, they’re taken to the USA National Detector Dog Training Center outside of Atlanta, where they work for 10 to 13 weeks on pinpointing plants, fruits, veggies, and other items in dummy suitcases. By the time training wraps up, a dog can detect 85 different odors.

“You walk into a McDonald’s, and you smell a Big Mac,” explains Demalderis. “A dog walks into a McDonald’s, and they smell the beef, lettuce, and fillers.”

Throughout its training and career, a beagle stays with the same handler. This way, the two can spend years working together to form a bond.

“It’s all body language. We know each other so well,” Tripple says of Denny. “I can tell just by his tail. If it droops, it’s time to be done.”

Madeline Bilis

Detecting odors — and receiving treats in return — is much like a game for the dogs, explains Demalderis. Once it stops becoming fun for them, they’ll hang their hat for the day (or in Denny’s case, lower his tail).

“Previous to this job I worked in a tiger sanctuary where I trained big cats,” Tripple says. “I love beagles, but beagles can almost be more frustrating when they get in their hard-headed state.”

Most beagles spend about four of their eight working hours out near the baggage carousels, patrolling and sniffing. At JFK, five beagles live at the airport’s on-site kennel. Many of them retire around 9 years of age, at which point they’ll go home for good with their handler, or with another CBP staffer.

Denny has about four years before he has the option to live with Tripple. Until then, his objective is simple: to get more treats.

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