The pepper weevil (Anthonomus Eugeni) cannot be spotted by humans either, making it nearly impossible to catch early on.
An outbreak of the pest in the fall of 2016 left all bell pepper growers in Leamington, Ohio highly concerned.
Once the pest spreads, it is essentially a “death sentence” for the crop as no beneficial bug is strong enough to combat it and sprays just irritate the pest forcing it to reproduce more, the company said.
NatureFresh R&D and IPM assistant Cam Lyons realized that there had to be a solution and conducted countless development sessions.
“Dogs are a very intelligent animal. Many worker dogs are trained to recognize and discover scents associated with drugs or bombs, so it seemed possible to train a dog to recognize pepper weevil,” she said.
After a lot of research, NatureFresh Farms adopted Chili, a 15-month old female Belgian Shepherd who was bred as a working dog.
Chili underwent eight weeks of training and was certified by The American Working Dog Association who verified that Chili was the first dog certified for pest-related scent detection on a farm. This certification also allows Chili to work in the farm without any food safety concern.
Chili works alongside Tina Heide, an IPM scout and her handler. The duo begin their days by searching the perimeters of the greenhouses, main aisle ways, inside trucks, pallets and near pack lines – and of course, Chili’s day is composed of many breaks to ensure she doesn’t get too hot or tired.
When Chili detects the scent of pepper weevil she will sit and stare at the location of concern. This allows NatureFresh farms to isolate any areas of concern in order to mitigate risks.
Since the company does not have pepper weevil at this time, Tina hides the pest stored in plastic containers throughout the greenhouse and tasks Chili with finding them; which she always does.
“For Chili it’s like a game of hide and seek. While she’s out there working, it’s actually a game for her and she’s loving it,” Tina explained.