No, we aren’t talking about guard dogs.
A few years ago whilst waiting in an airport for a flight to Koh Samui, Thailand, we encountered a little cocker spaniel. She ran up to us and started pointing at our hand luggage. Having nothing to hide and feeling slightly bemused we dutifully unpacked our bags. It turned out that the clever dog had smelled the 5,000 Thai Bhat in small bills we were carrying.
Sniffer dogs are wondrous animals; highly trained and able to detect people, explosives, narcotics and even, as we found out, the ink on printed money.
If you thought they couldn’t get any more useful, it seems they will shortly be able to protect vineyards from pests and disease.
Sonja Needs, a researcher at Melbourne University, is training sniffer dogs to detect phylloxera, the scourge of vineyards. This tiny relative of the aphid feeds on the roots of grapevines, sucking the sap from them. The resulting damage leaves the vine susceptible to disease. If you want to know more about phylloxera, read our recent post.
Phylloxera is currently present in Australia in Victoria and New South Wales. The rest of the country has remained unaffected. Dogs capable of sniffing out this pest could be vital in keeping phylloxera from spreading.
Australia puts a lot of resources into wine production. Grafted vines are key to this. North American vines are more resistant to phylloxera. Grape growers can graft their vines onto the rootstock from North American vines to allow them to grow the variety they want whilst reducing the chances of phylloxera taking hold. According to the Phylloxera and Grape Industry Board of South Australia, in 2012 76,000 hectares of vineyards were planted in that state, which is more than double the total amount planted by the whole of New Zealand for the same year. Of those vines planted around a fifth were planted purely for their phylloxera resistant rootstocks – a huge investment in fighting this disease.
Vines under attack from phylloxera often show no noticeable evidence of this above ground. Dogs capable of sniffing out this pest could play a vital role in preventing it spreading. Areas that are cleared of phylloxera can be frequently checked, as can harvesting equipment to ensure the disease is not being accidentally spread. Most of Australia is phylloxera free, and these dogs could keep it that way.
Training a dog for detection is basically a process of getting it to recognise a smell, and then playing increasingly difficult hide and seek games with a reward each time.
With phylloxera, Ms Needs thinks the key will be training the dogs to sniff it out at increasingly deeper depths in the soil, between three and four feet down. Phylloxera is dormant in winter so the ideal scenario would be to detect it when it is not active.
Ms Needs is also helping to give unwanted dogs something to do. Apparently dogs that tend to be hyperactive or difficult to control make excellent sniffer dogs – all they need is a job to do.
So, just in case you needed another reason to appreciate Man’s best friend, thanks to them for working to keep vineyards pest free!