ON THE BEAT: Aka on display at the Science Protecting Plant Health forum in Brisbane.
ON THE BEAT: Aka on display at the Science Protecting Plant Health forum in Brisbane. Faith Thiang

Government workers sniffing out fire ant threats

THE snout of a trained labrador is more successful at detecting fire ants than a human could ever be.

Among stalls highlighting the latest innovation from researchers at the Science Protecting Plant Health forum was working dog Aka, who was demonstrating biosecurity Queensland's fire ant program.

Fire ants were first detected in the Brisbane area in February 2001. The South American pest poses a serious economic and environmental threat.

Since 2008 sniffer dogs have been used as vital tools in combating the spread of the pest.

Senior handler Justin Gibson said there were six dogs on the beat in south-east Queensland tackling fire ants and two working in north Queensland, detecting electric ants.

"We use the detection dogs in this program for a variety of tasks,” he said.

"Their primary task is to provide proof of freedom, so if a site has had an infestation and has been treated we do the final round of validation surveillance with our detection dogs. So they don't need to see ants or nests, they just have to sniff them out for us.”

The hounds start their training when they are about 18 months of age and have six months with an independent trainer before entering the fire-ant program, he said.

"We mainly use labradors but currently we have a cattle-dog cross and in the past we have had a golden retriever and golden-collie cross,” he said.

Mr Gibson likened the process of imprinting dogs to the scent of the ant's pheromone to a human response to their favourite home-cooked meal.

"The easiest way for me to explain it is like when you move out of home and you go back six or eight months later and mum is cooking her famous stew and as soon as you walk in you know exactly what it is,” he said.