They can sniff out a fungus that destroys avocado groves

By Mike Pomranz
Updated June 26, 2018
Credit: Photo by Diane Macdonald via Getty Images

A Florida-based company called Innovative Detection Concepts is using dogs to fight the spread of the laurel wilt fungus, which destroys avocado groves. The hope is that these hounds can help put an end to the damage this fungus is doing to the avocado industry all together.

Laurel wilt fungus reportedly first came to the United States back in 2002. Its name stems from its habit of infecting trees in the laurel family, which includes avocado trees. According to Modern Farmer, which recently profiled Innovative Detection Concepts, the fungus has taken about 40,000 avocado trees in Florida out of commission, about 5 percent of the state’s commercial avocado groves. And even worse, the tree disease continues to spread west.

John Mills, a 71-year-old avocado farmers and retired Army Colonel, along with his wife, DeEtta Mills, a microbiologist at Florida International University, and one of her colleagues, Kenneth Furton, FIU’s provost and an expert in canine olfaction (luckily enough), came up with the idea of training dogs as a method of early fungus detection. “If it’s early enough, you get a 95 percent save rate,” Mills told Modern Farmer, emphasizing the importance of catching the tree disease early. “If it’s later, it’s down to the 50 percent range.”

The group’s research was successful, and in 2014, Innovative Detection Concepts was launched with just three dogs. The pack is now up to six. “They love to work and the scent drives them to reward,” John Mills was quoted as saying. “Our Malinois [named Cobra] is the best of the group, she’ll work forever and never slow down.”

Mills also stressed that early detection is more beneficial for the dogs as well. “If it’s full-blown infection, the dogs are going to be saturated with the scent,” he said before comparing the dogs to their drug-sniffing counterparts. “If you have someone carrying a small quantity of cocaine, it’s easier to train the dogs to pinpoint that than it is a truckload of cocaine sitting outside.” (Important side note: If you’re ever trying to sneak past a drug-sniffing dog, apparently it’s better to have at least a truckload of cocaine.)

But Mills overall hope is that his dogs can simply help scientists buy enough time to figure out more effective ways to eradicate laurel wilt fungus. “I think it will be stopped but at what point is the question,” Mills told Modern Farmer. Meanwhile, if your dog isn’t out their saving avocado trees, what does that pooch think he’s doing? You might as well trade him in for a cat.