Virginia Tech studies how dogs can help fight the spread of spotted lanternflies
The invasive spotted lanternfly continues to spread throughout Virginia — threatening vineyards. And researchers are training dogs to help sniff them out.
On a recent afternoon, an energetic border collie named Flint wandered through a Virginia vineyard looking for spotted lanternflies.
The dog wagged his tail energetically and put his paw in the air, indicating where the eggs were.
“I was very impressed with him,” Flint’s owner and handler, Sally Dickinson, reflected. Dickenson, a doctoral student at Virginia Tech at the School of Life Sciences, has spent months training him to smell spotted lanternflies.
She’s part of a research team that was recently awarded a four-year USDA grant to help train citizen dogs across the country.
Her mentor, associate professor Erica Feuerbacher, is leading the project. “I used to go hiking with my dog. And I would always think of all the things he’s sniffing out there,” Feuerbacher said. “Wouldn’t it be great if he could be out there working as well?”
In Pennsylvania, the Department of Agriculture has used a German shepherd to help detect lanternflies. Lanternflies go after grape vines, putting the wine industry at risk. Dogs could be used to help slow their spread by identify egg masses at shipping yards where these insects often hitchhike on crates or trucks. They could also be useful at vineyards, to help growers detect and destroy the eggs before they hatch.
“We know that scent work is a naturally occurring behavior in dogs,” Dickinson said.
She said training them to detect specific scents can also reinforce the bonds between dogs and their handlers.
For the study, they’re currently recruiting dogs with prior scent training, like search and rescue or competitive sporting. Dickinson said they’d like to eventually be able to train any dog and owner team who wants to sniff out invasive insects.