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Winery Dogs Earn Their Keep by Sniffing Out Pests, Contaminates and More

While it’s not uncommon to spot a winemaker’s dog lounging amid the vines, some canines are actually put to work in wineries. With their powerful noses, dogs can sniff out pests and contaminants to protect the quality of vines, barrels and wine around the world.

Chemical compounds like TCA (2,4,6-Trichloroanisole) ruin wine by tainting corks, wooden barrels and packaging. So, in 2012, Labrador retrievers named Ambrosia, Moro and Odysé joined the team at Chile-based cooperage TN Coopers to help detect TCA in the wood used to make handcrafted wine barrels.

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Puppies at Bergin University of Canine Studies in Penngrove, California / Photo by Sherri Rieck

Unlike devices that test for the presence of TCA and other haloanisoles in the air, dogs can pinpoint exactly which barrel, pallet or hose is contaminated. In a warehouse filled with 1,000 barrels, this is an extremely helpful skillset, explains Alejandro Fantoni Jr., one of the cooperage’s managers. When a dog gets a whiff of contamination, he points his nose toward the scent and freezes. 

“The Labradors are super intelligent and really easy to train, and they have this nice nose; they can detect really low doses,” says Fantoni. “There’s people that are afraid of dogs and we work with people. So, that’s one of the reasons why we choose Labradors: because they’re friendly.”

While working in their vests, the Labs are focused, Fantoni says. After the job is done, the vests come off and their reward is playing with a ball.

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Dogs at Chile’s TN Coopers can help detect TCA in the wood used for barrels / Photo by Exequiel Lavandero

The scent-detection program has proven so successful TN Coopers has trained more Labs, including four named Mamba, Zamba, Bonny and Clyde, and plans to train a new litter whose names are being decided. The canine crew has been hired to inspect warehouses and shipping containers at wineries in Chile and Argentina.

Additionally, TN Coopers is helping to train TCA- and TBA-detection dogs for global breweries and distilleries. The cooperage also hosts demonstrations at wineries in California as part of the organization’s Natinga Project, which seeks to raise awareness of ways detection dogs can help the industry.

“The winemakers, they are fighting to make the most perfect product as possible. They’re putting all the trust in our products, so our product has to be perfect for them,” Fantoni says. “The answer was Mother Nature with the dogs.”

Scientific research also points to dogs’ potential for helping winemakers. In Australia, Sonja Needs, a viticulture and animal science researcher at the University of Melbourne, successfully trained a German shepherd named Luther to detect the fungal disease Eutypa in grapevines and the spoilage yeast Brettanomyces in wooden barrels and machinery at wineries. She’s researching ways detection dogs might help control the insect phylloxera, which can devastate vineyards.

Unlike devices that test for the presence of TCA in the air, dogs can pinpoint exactly which barrel, pallet or hose is contaminated.

In Napa, four golden retrievers named Ros, Rigo, Richardson and Rousek sniffed out the pheromone of female mealybugs at Honig Vineyard & Winery during a pilot project in 2005. 

President Michael Honig said the dogs trained to detect the scent for about a year and a half at Bergin University of Canine Studies in Penngrove, California.

“They were able to train the dogs to key in on the scent, and then ultimately get them into the vineyard and run through the property to find the scent, then stop and bark,” he says. “And we could go out with shovels and magnifying glasses and determine which vines were affected in that area, and then eradicate those few vines before the bugs basically devastated the whole property.”

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Dr. Bonnie Bergin oversees a training circle / Photo by Claire Richardson

The biggest challenge was that the dogs couldn’t run all day across 50 acres because it was too physically demanding. So, the vineyard used insect traps to identify areas affected by mealybugs, and then brought in the goldens to pinpoint the trouble spots.

While Honig Vineyard isn’t currently experiencing issues with mealybugs, he could see using detection dogs again because it was so effective and a welcome alternative to using pesticides.

“The sniffer dog is an example of farmers going outside of their normal tool belt,” says Honig. “It’s an idea that worked, and we’ve shown it worked.”

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A sniffer dog hard at work / Photo courtesy TN Coopers

Detection dogs are protecting wine drinkers, too. At the 2021 South Beach Wine & Food Festival, dogs trained by Florida International University’s International Forensic Research Institute to detect Covid-19 made sure attendees passed the sniff test at entrances. 

Bonnie Bergin, Ed.D., founder of Bergin University of Canine Studies and the service dog nonprofit Canine Companions for Independence, says that dogs excel at a variety of scent detection work, from truffles to explosives and narcotics to the pheromone of the vine mealybug, because of their strong sense of smell and because they enjoy the search. Using positive training methods, the work becomes a game.

“Vision is the primary sense of humans,” she says. “That’s how we see the world. Scent is the primary way dogs see the world. So, they absolutely love it.”