Nose Knows Scouting: The Future of Canine Disease Detection

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Nose Knows Scouting disease detection canine, Photo: Andrea Parish

Nose Knows Scouting, a canine disease detection service, works to ensure crop security.

It’s no secret that dogs have a talent for farm work. Canines have been used on farms in different capacities for years. Instead of being a faithful livestock guardian or a herding helper, they’re finding new talents for their noses: disease detection.

Similarly to the jobs you see hounds perform in airport security lines or even as medical alert service animals, dogs are finding new homes in fields to determine what diseases are found in fields.

“Canines are one of the most successfully domesticated animals in history. We’ve been using them as hunters and gatherers for quite a long time. The benefit of dogs is their ability to understand and also the ability to work well with humans. Canines have a sense of smell 10,000 to 100,000 times better than humans, with hundreds to millions more receptor cells than we do. They’re very mobile, but they can handle almost any scenario we can put them into,” says Julian L. Mendel, research assistant professor at Florida International University (FIU) and an author for various studies on canine disease detection, in a phone interview with Spud Smart.

“They have been used in law enforcement for quite some time. Canines, of course, have been used for missing people, drugs, explosives, money, guns and ammunition” he adds. “That leap from the historical aspects of using dogs is an easy one to make when you think about the science behind it, and how easy it is to have dogs work on different odors. So, it’s not a new science by any means, but it is definitely very useful.”

The high value of canines for disease detection, along with her love for the animals, is why Andrea Parish created her company Nose Knows Scouting, a service that uses dogs to detect disease in crops, and specifically in potatoes.

Nose Knows Scouting was established by Parish just a few days before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Since its creation, she has trained her dogs to detect potato virus Y (PVY) and Bacterial Ring Rot (BRR). Nose Knows Scouting offers storage scouting, field scouting and equipment scouting.

Parish currently has three working dogs that she trains five to seven days a week, year-round. While each dog might not be used year-round, the training must remain consistent to maintain the skills. The training sessions last from five to 10 minutes and occur five to 10 times a day, as dogs work better in shorts sessions, explains Parish.

For disease detection, Parish says the floppy eared dogs and the breeds that are most used in law enforcement or at airports are the best. She uses one dog for a single disease and can train each dog to learn up to five or six different diseases.

Nose Knows Scouting canine in the field, Source: Andrea Parish

“We’re successful. People believe in it. And it really does work. The dogs really do well. At three per cent and under of the virus, the dogs are very, very successful. When we get over three per cent, our success rate goes down, so that’s always challenging when we go on mass odor. Mass odor is a lot more challenging,” Parish explains in a phone interview with Spud Smart.

While the dogs can be used to detect disease in the fields, they can also be useful when the plants are still in the ground.

“We can tell you if your shoes or your office has ring rot. So, a lot of farms have hired us for ring rot to do a sweep of basically their empty farm while everything’s already planted in the ground, to see if it exists. It’s confidential information, and then you can use better cleaning protocols in the areas that we indicate that there has been a kind of breach of disease,” says Parish.

One of the greatest external push backs, according to Parish, are those who are unsure about the authenticity and effectiveness of dogs for disease detection and assume there are many false positives. Yet, they aren’t as frequent as believed.

The dogs give “very, very few false positives,” she says. “The dogs are going to detect the odor and they’re looking for odor. So, say a plant is outside and there’s a prevailing wind, sometimes they’ll indicate on the plant next to it because it smells like PVY. It wasn’t a fault. They really are on odor. It’s up to us as a handler to really work them into the actual plant.”

While Parish is confident in the ability of her dogs, it took the public a bit longer to believe in the power of her canines’ noses.

“Most farmers have dogs. If they see a bird dog work, they kind of get that understanding that dogs are looking for odor, and it’s just innate and simple for them. The COVID-19 dogs helped a lot because that was something that was publicized. That if they can find COVID in humans 48 hours before PCR testing with no symptoms, they can for sure find a plant virus,” she explains.

In the Market for Nose Knows Scouting

Despite being a newer business, Parish and her dogs have had great success with various clients and universities. For some universities, she is a life saver as her dogs clean the seeds that the universities would otherwise toss out.

One of Nose Knows Scouting’s most faithful clients is Asunta Thompson, a professor at North Dakota State University (NDSU) and potato breeder. Thompson began working with Parish and her dogs this past spring season.

“I was looking for an efficient, quick, simple, accurate measure of PVY incidence in my potato breeding program materials. Our breeding program has to have a certified seed operation in order to increase promising lines,” says Thompson in an email interview with Spud Smart. “So, we thought a great way to see if a doable procedure in our program was to test out the Nose Knows Scouting protocol versus considering time, effort, number of people and accuracy with our current indexing (ELISA testing in the greenhouse and field), visual inspection and imaging options.”

It is safe to say that Thompson and her team at NDSU are firm believers in the power of dogs for disease detection following Parish and her dog Zorra’s visit.

“Everyone loved having Andrea and Zorra visit. Zorra was all business and worked quickly and focused, despite varying research teams and seed certification personnel observing. When we compared Zorra’s results with ELISA testing in the greenhouse after her visit, results were very accurate (ie. identified positives by Zorra were positive with ELISA, while negatives were negative),” explains Thompson. “The Nose Knows Scouting gives us another tool in our arsenal of providing PVY free or levels within certification tolerances. The service is reasonably priced, very rapid, and has good accuracy. I want to try again and particularly prior to long-term storage.”

What is Next for Nose Knows Scouting?

As her business continues to expand, Parish hopes to eventually use her dogs to detect diseases in apples and grapes, in addition to potatoes. With these new crops, her dogs would be able to detect fire blight and red rot blotch grape virus.

“I’m in Maine in the summer. I went around to the orchards and fire blight is really hitting the East Coast, up in northern Maine in these small, local apple orchards. I really would like to help them because I don’t want to see them shut down. I grew up next to an apple orchard. So, when we get a little bit more industry support, which is really gaining traction, and I partner with set a bigger company, which will be the next step, we need training facilities and access to potatoes. I think after that happens, we’ll get another team out there do a different disease,” she explains.

The future of dogs for disease detection in agriculture is bright, and could be an essential tool, according to Mendel.

“Crop security is essential. It’s very important in these times, and in the future, it is going to be critical. When you look at the application of something like canines to manage crops, to look for diseases in those types of scenarios, it really is a no brainer from our standpoint. This is something that should be expanded on a national scale, where we have these teams and trainings to establish a force of canine sensors that can help detect things early,” he concludes.

Read More from the Fall Issue:

Reducing the Wireworm Threat

Limited Supply Predicted for Processing Spuds

Moving Regen Ag from the Pasture to the Potato Field