When traveling through the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, most passengers will probably come across agriculture detector dogs sniffing luggage to keep potentially harmful food products and pests from entering the United States.
These dogs go through rigorous training before they’re able to patrol baggage lines, but one young beagle has already faced much more than his share of challenges.
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Meet Murray, a three-year-old beagle who will be Hartsfield-Jackson’s newest agriculture detector dog in a few weeks. About a year ago, he was rescued by Alcovy Pet Rescue, Inc. from the Northeast Georgia Animal Shelter, which intakes about 3000 animals annually.
“He was very eager for love and very eager for attention,” said Tammie Jourdanais, the shelter’s director.
He was brought in with a badly injured tail and with half of one of his ears missing. He was also skinny, beat up and socially neglected.
“He was scared and timid and everything like that, which is probably from being stuck in a small cage or kennel and not (being allowed) to socialize or (being) paid attention to,” Jourdanais said.
This is where Murray’s challenges began, but it was also the beginning of his path to becoming a member of the Beagle Brigade.
‘Not all people are bad people’
Most of Murray’s tail had to be amputated. He came into the shelter with a band tightly wrapped around it, cutting off circulation. Jourdanais said his owners were most likely trying to dock (or cut) his tail off without paying a veterinarian to do it.
“It causes a lot of pain,” Jourdanais said. “It cuts off the circulation until the tail just rots off pretty much.”
» GALLERY: Check out more photos of Murray at work
Murray was also missing about half of his ear. It could’ve been from a dog bite, or it could’ve been an intentional cut with a blade. It’ll most likely remain a mystery.
After Murray’s wounds were tended to and he was put on antibiotics and pain medications, he began social training.
“We socialized him with other animals, and we pretty much just loved on him, so he’d know that not all people are bad people,” Jourdanais said.
Murray’s injuries were too severe for adoption, and after the shelter posted on Facebook asking for help for Murray, Alcovy Pet Rescue director Yvonne Petty along with Claudette Towe drove from Winder to the shelter in Lavonia to help rescue him.
“When a plea like this goes out on Facebook, it’s up to the rescues to step up, go get the dog and make sure he’s taken care of and (gets) ready for adoption,” Towe said.
Towe took in Murray and fostered him for about four weeks through his socializing training and later veterinary trips.
“While he was at my place, he was so food motivated,” Towe said. “He would get into all the cabinets, trying to find food — you know, he was so skinny when he first got to us. I saw what a great nose he has.”
This led Towe to make a call to Kathleen Warfield, a training specialist at the National Detector Training Center in Newnan.
Earning his place in the Beagle Brigade
Here’s where the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) entered and drastically changed Murray’s future. Kathleen Warfield, a training specialist at the National Detector Training Center in Newnan, said that they acquire most of their dogs from rescues, shelters, humane societies and animal control.
“The dogs we’re looking for are working dogs that really need something to do,” Warfield said. “They need to keep busy and be active.”
While some shelter dogs fit in better within homes as pets, Warfield said Murray completely fit the description of an agriculture detection dog.GALLERY: See more photos of Murray at work
“Murray is the happiest dog you will ever meet (laughs),” Warfield said. “When he’s at the airport, he just loves being in that environment.”
The USDA established the detector dog program in 1984, and it was a team of beagles located in the Los Angeles International Airport. The team was lovingly named the Beagle Brigade.
“People aren’t intimidated by beagles at the airport, where if you brought in a German shepherd or bigger dogs, they are,” Warfield said. “These dogs have to work very closely around the passengers if they’re coming through international airports, checking their bags and carry-ons.”
These dogs go through an evaluation process to see how they acclimate to their future work environment within an airport. This is where trainers see how they deal with lots of noise and being surrounded by people.
After that, they enter a four to six-week training period until they’re ready for graduation. Murray graduated the program on March 16 along with three other dogs. While those dogs are heading to Boston, San Francisco and Baltimore, Murray is staying in state and will work at Hartsfield-Jackson.
Protecting agriculture one sniff at a time
Murray’s first day on the job will come in a few weeks once he’s acclimated to his new workplace.
“So what he’s been trained to do is to sniff bags, boxes, anything coming in with passengers or on the baggage belt to make sure there’s no food, fruit or meat items that could have pests or diseases that could harm American agriculture,” Warfield said.
According to the USDA’s website, agriculture is the largest industry and employment sector in the United States, amassing more than $1 trillion in annual economic activity. Attempting to protect this industry, approximately 1.7 million materials were quarantined in 2016 by these detector dogs and more than 60,000 harmful pests were intercepted.
“They save time, a lot of money and our food sources, so they’re very, very important,” Warfield said. “And we love them (laughs).”
As important of a job as it is, Warfield added that it doesn’t feel like work to these dogs. It’s more of a huge game of find and seek.
“It’s like a game to them to find that particular odor, and then they get rewarded with a treat, so they have to be very food motivated — Murray is definitely that,” Warfield said.
Murray will live in a kennel near Hartsfield-Jackson and will be picked up each day for his shift. Typically, once these dogs retire, they are adopted by the U.S. Customs & Border Protection agent who’s already worked with them and developed a bond with the dogs.
Most detector dogs work until they’re about 9 years old, so Murray should have an exciting 6-year career ahead of him.
“He has made me so proud,” Jourdanais said. “These dogs mean so much to me. I like to know that when they leave me, the rest of their life is the best of their life.”
Ways to help
The USDA accepts private donations, and anyone with a beagle, beagle-mix, lab or lab-mix who is curious about detector dog procurement for their dog, call 844-876-3755 or 770-304-7925 for more information. If you are interested in adopting a pet from Alcovy Pet Rescue, Inc., visit alcovypet.com or call 770-580-0502. Find Alcovy’s current fundraiser here.