Winemakers May Turn to Canine Intuition to Fight Flies


The photo gracing the top spot in a recent Australian Broadcasting Company story about vineyard-disease sniffing dogs shows a sprightly border collie staring inquisitively into a hole cut into a wood wall. 
Turns out the pooch is doing a practice run for what may turn out to be her full-time job one day: roaming Australian vineyards in search of various vine diseases that can ruin harvests and bring winemakers months of frustration.
“Dogs have traditionally been trained to sniff out drugs, explosives and even missing people, but their new target could be phylloxera – a devastating disease that feeds on the roots of vines and can eventually kill an entire vineyard,” reporter Deb O'Callaghan wrote this past week.
Ruby is part of a of training program at Melbourne University, the article said. Sonja Needs, a researcher who works with viticulture and animal science, said the process for training a dog to sniff out phylloxera is a matter of finding the most antsy pooches.
“The best dogs we can use are the ones that are slightly out of control, that people think … is useless,” she told O'Callaghan. “That's the dog we want: Those hyperactive, mad case dogs that you think you can't train. They're quite often the best dogs for this sort of work. They desperately need a job.”
Needs said she's trying to train the dogs to detect disease below the surface of the soil, particularly because of the nature of the phylloxera disease, a fly-borne malady that dives below the surface of the soil to attack the vine's roots. 
“I want to see what depth, because phylloxera is on the roots inside the soil, so I want to see what depth if the dogs can pick them up at a metre below the surface,” she said. “And if they can it's going to be an amazingly powerful (method) we can use as a detection tool.”
Needs also said she hopes the dogs' olfactory superiority can be used to sniff out disease not only on vines and their roots, but on “grape equipment before it is moved, making sure that the pest is not spread.”
O'Callaghan noted that South Australia “is currently phylloxera free, and would like to keep it that way, as is a small area of the Yarra Valley.”
The research is taking place on a small scale now, but Needs said she and the Victorian Government are working together and hope to have a formalized training program set by the end of the year. 
Photo Credit: JJ, Flickr Creative Commons

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