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Sacramento County’s four-legged ag inspector

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Being on the go before sunup to spend four hours sniffing boxes and running on treadmills might not sound like an ideal job to many, but for Dozer, a 3- or 4-year-old Labrador retriever, work is a dream.

“It’s clear that he loves his job,” said Jennifer Berger, who has been Sacramento County’s agricultural dog handler since the program came to the county in 2008.

Dozer has been on the job since January, and he is one of about 13 agricultural inspection dogs in the state – all tasked with sniffing out organic materials being shipped into the area that could carry pests damaging California’s lucrative agriculture industry. Materials include flowers, fruits and anything else the dog is trained to detect that might pose a danger, Berger said.

“The threat is huge,” said Ramona Saunders, Berger’s supervisor. “The Asian citrus psyllid can carry a bacteria that is very damaging to citrus fruits.”

She added that Florida, some parts of the South, Southern California and Tulare are currently dealing with the insect, and once the trees are infected, there is no cure – they must be cut down.

Berger’s previous dog, Tassie, was commended for finding a package that contained a large amount of the insects, preventing their release into Northern California, Berger said.

“You’re going to be hearing more about them in the news,” Saunders said, noting their spread to California, “but we don’t want to be the county that lets them in.”

All the dogs used in the program are rescued, meaning they come from shelters or are surrendered by owners who, for whatever reason, can no longer keep them. Funding for the program comes from federal sources, and it represents an economic boon to the county, since it adds funding for Dozer, Berger and other operational costs without impacting the county budget.

About 10 human inspectors are also employed by the county.

A typical day for Dozer begins at 4 a.m., with predawn trips to shipping facilities including UPS, FedEx and the U.S. Postal Service’s facilities. His coverage area extends from Sacramento County all the way to Shasta County on the east side of Interstate 5.

“I let him off the leash, and he jumps right up on the (conveyor belts), climbing over and sniffing packages,” Berger said.

He spends nine hours per day with Berger, and, typically, four hours of that is spent actively inspecting facilities and vehicles. When Berger is in her office doing paperwork, Dozer can run on a dog treadmill, play with toys or rest.

“Sometimes, he will come up and paw at my lap, and I’ll watch him and see him sort of lift himself up,” Berger said. “The next thing I know, he’s in my lap. And he weighs 70 pounds.”

At the end of the day, Dozer goes to a pet hotel, which has a veterinary office next door. Berger said that it’s important that she not bring Dozer home with her because she has fruits and other things Dozer is trained to sniff out, and having him live around those items would confuse him and make him less effective.

The bond between dog and handler is strong, Berger said, and when Dozer retires – which is mandatory at age 9 – he will come home with Berger.

Most of the packages Dozer finds consist of items being illegally mailed with no malicious intent, Berger said.

In the video below, Dozer demonstrates his ability to sniff through various packages and discover those with questionable contents.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m ruining someone’s graduation – maybe they are getting a really nice flower lei shipped in from Hawaii, but that lei could have microscopic insects or larvae that could cause huge amounts of damage,” she said, adding that the humid climates of Florida and Hawaii are incubators for many of the dangerous insects.

Sending fruits or flowers is not illegal, but having them properly inspected by local agricultural departments to ensure they are free of harmful materials is essential to doing it legally. Berger said inspected packages are certified as being clean and can be sent with no problem.

“It’s an extra step, but it really is an important one,” she said. “Most people just don’t know what the dangers are.”

Dozer and Berger are available for demonstrations at schools, and Berger can be contacted by email at bergerj@saccounty.net.

Brandon Darnell is a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press. Follow him on Twitter @Brandon_Darnell.

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