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Detector Dogs

​​​Department of Agriculture and Water Resources detector dogs play a vital role in helping to protect Australia from exotic pests and diseases and are used in conjunction with a number of other biosecurity strategies and detection technologies. The department’s detector dog teams are deployed at international passenger terminals, mail facilities and courier depots throughout Australia.

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What detector dogs are trained to find

Detector dogs are trained to find items that could bring pests or diseases into Australia such as certain food, plant material and animal products. 

The Arriving in Australia- Declare It page has a list of items that the dogs are trained to detect.

On average, our detector dogs can be expected to find between 3000 and 3500 biosecurity risk items during their working life.

How dogs respond to a detection

The department’s detector dogs are trained to respond in different ways depending on where they are working. 

Active detector dogs

These dogs are trained to dig at the source of target odour. They are rewarded with food or a game of tug-of-war when they find biosecurity risk material. Active detector dogs mainly work at mail facilities and courier depots.

Passive response detector dogs

These dogs are trained to sit in the presence of target odour. They are rewarded with food from their handler when they find biosecurity risk material. Passive response detector dogs generally work among the public at international passenger terminals.

Multipurpose detector dogs

These dogs are trained to deliver the appropriate response in the environment in which they are operating. At an international passenger terminal, they will sit beside a passenger or baggage. When scanning objects in mail facilities and private depots they will dig at the source of target odour.

The number of detector dogs working for the department

Detector Dog Operations has approximately 60 dogs operating in international airports, seaports, mail centres and courier depots. A majority are labradors with our beagles being phased out.

Why beagles are being replaced with labradors

Beagles have traditionally been used because of their high food drive and friendly public image.

  • Labradors have other practical purposes - they can be trained as multipurpose dogs, because of their strong retrieve drive.
  • Labradors are larger and more agile, making it easier for them to screen larger items at airports, mail centres, seaports and courier depots.

The Australian Government Department of Agriculture and Water Resources​ has a reliable source of suitable labradors available for training, the Australian Border Force breeds most of the labradors used by the department.

Where the trainee detector dogs are sourced from

Suitable labradors are sourced from the Australian Border Force Detector Dog Breeding program.

Labradors have an extraordinary sense of smell, are co-operative and gentle with people and possess extreme hunt, food and retrieve drives.

Initial training takes place then the dogs are deployed into the operational environment. Ongoing training forms part of our detector dogs’ daily routine to continually improve their capability.

Working life, and life after work

Our detector dogs have a working life of about six to eight years.

When they finish working in their biosecurity role, they are placed into loving homes (in some cases with one of their handlers), or move into the department’s training program for new detector dog handlers.

A brief history of biosecurity detector dogs

1991: Australia contracted a detector dog trainer from the US Department of Agriculture to help develop a pilot program in Australia.

1992: In February the first two detector dog teams became operational in Sydney and Brisbane.

1995: The department's detector dog operations were expanded by introducing active response dogs into international mail centres.

2002: After ten years of operation the program had expanded to 26 teams including six teams undertaking state government biosecurity work.

2009: Labradors were introduced into airport and seaport operations. Until this time only beagles were used as passive response detector dogs in these environments.

2011: Based on the success of a pilot program conducted in Brisbane, conversion of passive response labradors to multipurpose dogs commenced.

2012: The department celebrated twenty years of detector dogs as a part of a smart, integrated biosecurity system in Australia.

2015: A farewell event is held for the last five beagles working at Sydney airport.