Every morning, Monday through Friday, Chris Tyler takes her dog Doomis ― an 8-and-a-half-year-old black Lab/shepherd mix ― to the Post Office, FedEx, UPS, or OnTrac, where they hang out together in front of conveyor belts carrying tens of thousands of packages.
Tyler works for the Santa Barbara County Agriculture Commission and Doomis is the property of the United States Department of Agriculture, which sent him to a special training facility in Georgia, where he learned how to smell various insects and other ag pests that get shipped from one part of the country to the next. If Doomis scratches a box with his paw, then Tyler pulls it off the conveyor belt. About half are opened up. An attending biologist determines what kind of pest — if any — is inside.
Doomis the detector dog, as he’s known, is the front line of a pest prevention program designed to keep Santa Barbara’s multibillion-dollar agriculture industry as free from outside pests as possible. Last year, they opened up 7,271 packages, 56 of which required instant quarantining as they posed a severe enough economic threat. Another 96 required serious action as well.
The most common pests (about 64 percent) belong to a category known as “scale insects.” These look like tiny bumps along the stem of a plant, according to Tyler. “They burrow into their host plants and siphon out their juices,” she said. Mealy bugs make up about 15 percent of the positively identified pests, and ants make up about 5 percent.
Last week, the county supervisors authorized receipt of $264,000 from the California Department of Food and Agriculture to cover the county’s cost of the program. On a typical day, Doomis and Tyler will identify 20 to 40 suspect packages. On Valentine’s Day, the number is closer to 400. Their busiest inspection point is the Post Office, where they can spend up to five hours (Doomis gets 30-minute breaks).
Tyler and Doomis get along, but Tyler makes it clear Doomis is not a pet. “He’s the property of the U.S. Department of Agriculture on lease to the State of California, which has assigned him to Santa Barbara County,” she said. “He does not work for me, and he is not my pet.” But after a pause, Tyler added, “But this dog definitely gets the best of me; we spend a lot of time doing things together. My dog at home just gets to watch me sleep.”