About the Detector Dog Programme

MPI's Detector Dog Programme ensures that dogs are trained to detect and stop biosecurity risk items coming into New Zealand. Find out about the dogs' work and how the programme came about.

The important role of detector dogs

New Zealand has strict biosecurity procedures at airports and ports to prevent the introduction of pests and diseases of animals and plants. MPI uses detector dogs to find items that could be a biosecurity risk. The dogs search baggage, cargo, vessels, and mail.

The dogs are trained to find:

  • plants and plant products, like assorted fruits, vegetables, bulbs, flowers, leaves, and seeds
  • animals and animal products, like meats, eggs, live birds, and reptiles.

Detector dog teams work at all international ports of entry like:

  • international airports
  • ports
  • the International Mail Centre in Auckland
  • international cargo companies.

Detector dogs are also used to help inspect the luggage of cruise ship passengers arriving from overseas destinations, as well as checking yachts before arrival in New Zealand. 

Quick facts

  • More than 50 passive-response detector dog teams working at all major international airports.
  • Dog teams cover the International Mail Centre in Auckland and international cargo companies.
  • Teams combine to cover cruise ships that arrive from overseas destinations.

Training and testing dogs

The Detector Dog Programme has a National Training Centre in Auckland where we train and test new and existing dog teams. The centre can house up to 44 dogs. It also has facilities for breeding and whelping. The dogs from MPI's breeding programme are highly sought after in New Zealand and by overseas agricultural detector dog agencies.

Video – 2 new recruits start their training

[Two puppies are seen sniffing around the floor and eating pieces of kibble. A training clicker can be heard.]

[Chief Quarantine Officer Kirsty Ansell addresses the camera directly while she and another quarantine officer each hold a beagle puppy. They are standing in a training facility. In the background is a conveyer belt with cardboard boxes on it. There are other cardboard boxes and suitcases on the floor, under the conveyor belt, and on shelves.]

This is Charleston and Roxy, and they were both purchased last week from breeders in Hastings. And they'll enter our puppy walking program and hopefully be successful in the next 12 to 14 months as working detector dogs.

Ok, so these guys'll start their training around 12 to 14 months of age, and they'll initially learn about 15 different odors. Then they'll be assigned to a handler where they'll proceed to continue training, and then they'll be assigned to their work site and continue to work until their retirement.

[The puppies are seen in a suitcase, sniffing around clothes and an apple to find pieces of kibble.]

They work roughly until about 8 years of age. We start doing health checks, 6-monthly health checks on them from the age of 7. And we have had dogs that have worked right up until about 11 years of age.

So they'll be working right across all the work sites – at the airports, mail center, cruise ships containers – basically anywhere that they need to be deployed.

It's important to purchase dogs from outside of our programme because it helps with our own breeding programme and increases our genetic diversity.

History of detector dogs

Dogs were first used overseas in the 1960s to detect illegal substances, like narcotics and explosives. By the 1970s, government agencies throughout the world were using detector dogs for specialised tasks.

Mexico was first

The Mexican government was the first to use dogs to detect agricultural quarantine items. In the late 1970s, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) developed a similar programme using dogs to search international mail and incoming passengers' baggage at international airports.

First beagles trained in 1984

Until 1983, USDA used only large dogs and dog searches were performed away from the public. In 1984, USDA started a pilot programme, called Beagle Brigade, using beagles. The dogs were trained to work among passengers at the baggage collection points of international airports. They were trained to respond passively, or to sit when indicating agricultural quarantine material and were rewarded with food for correct responses.

Today, beagles have become the most common breed of detector dog. Beagle Brigade programmes are used in the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

First dogs at Auckland Airport in 1996

MPI's Detector Dog Programme began in 1995. The first two passive-response dog handler teams started to work at Auckland International Airport in 1996.

International influence

MPI's Detector Dog Programme was instrumental in setting up similar programmes overseas, by supplying dogs and training handlers, for countries like Argentina, South Korea, and Canada.

Find out more

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