How Dogs Could Save the Avocado Industry

©. DeEtta Mills | Cobra, a 3-year-old Belgian Malinois, is trained to detect laurel wilt-diseased trees before the visible symptoms are seen.

Dogs have been trained to sniff out a devastating avocado tree disease before it becomes fatal – and they are really, really good at it.

We all know that dogs are humankind's best friend ... and that was before we knew they might save avocado toast. Here's how disease-sniffing canines might rescue a threatened avocado industry.

In 2002, the pesky redbay ambrosia beetle was found in Savannah, Georgia's Port Wentworth – the invasive species likely hitched a ride from Asia in untreated wooden packing material. Unfortunately, the ambrosia beetle does not bring the food of the gods with it, but rather, brings a fungus, Raffaelea lauricola, that causes mayhem for laurel trees. Known as laurel wilt disease, it has caused the death of more than 300 million laurel trees in the United States alone.

Guess what family the avocado tree is in? Yes, the laurel gang. A few years after the beetles were discovered in Georgia, they made their way to Florida, home of an avocado crop that brings in about $65 million wholesale each year. It is the second largest tree crop in Florida after citrus.

The disease has had a devastating effect on the industry in South Florida in past harvest seasons, and even larger two avocado industries in Mexico and California are concerned that the disease could wipe out their crops.

One of the problems with the disease is that once the external symptoms can be seen, it's generally too late to save the tree, or its neighbors. However, when caught early enough, the prognosis is much improved and widespread infection is contained.

Enter the dogs.

The team trained three dogs – a Belgian malinois and two Dutch shepherds – to detect the early presence of laurel wilt by scent. Once they got a tell-tale whiff, the "agri-dogs" would sit (like in the photo above) to indicate a positive alert.

During the research, 229 trials were performed ... with only a remarkable 12 of those yielding a false alerts. The authors say that it is likely, given proper training, that dogs could use their supernatural sniffers to protect the potentially ailing avocado industry.

"It is the best 'technology' so far that can detect a diseased tree before external symptoms are visible," says one of the study's authors, DeEtta Mills. "The old saying that 'dogs are man's best friend' reaches far beyond a personal bond with their handler and trainer. It is depicted in their excitement every day as they deploy to the groves. Man's best friend may even help save an industry."

The research has been published in HortTechnology.