A dog, golf course and perplexing pest. Everybody in the immediate area went from curious to nervous when the dog, named Carl after a golf-related movie character, sat on turf for the first time in a formal work setting.
In Carl’s world, sitting is alerting. Carl is a mixed breed rescued dog trained in controlled Florida settings to find annual bluegrass weevil (ABW)via smell in an expansive places like Nemacolin Country Club, a 97-year-old Southwestern Pennsylvania course.
On this early August day, scents mattered more to Carl than scenes. And there are plenty of odors on a golf course. Fresh-cut turf, halfway house hot dogs, club grips, diesel fuel, mulch, sewage, animals, chlorine from the pool. Could a dog who endured a dire situation block the others out and identify the odor produced by small sub-turf insects?
Carl performed well enough in Florida to convince Pepe Peruyero, the owner of Scentworx, a company that trains dogs to detect various odors, he was ready to head north. But, as any human in this business knows, practice success doesn’t always translate to results on the course. “We all held our breaths,” says Jason Webeck, one of Carl’s handlers. “Everything up until that point had been training scenarios.”
On that day, Carl alerted twice and the group observing him lifted a slice of Nemacolin turf and found ABW.
Carl has returned to Nemacolin multiple times since early August. His alerts are telling superintendent JD Saunders things he didn’t know about his course.
“We were finding them in spots where we couldn’t believe they were still at during that time of year,” he says. “The initial response was kind of overwhelming... Obviously, everybody loves watching a dog work and hunt, but to see him give the signal and sit down, and we actually found the bugs, was pretty neat.”
A mutual friend led Saunders to Webeck, a regional representative for Scentworx, which was looking for new projects for its dogs following a slowdown in the bed bug market.
“If a dog can smell the odor of bed bugs, then why can’t it smell the odor of ABW?” he adds. “If it’s an issue JD and guys at other courses in other areas are going through, it’s definitely something we can help with.”
Superintendents are known for their patience when it comes to new products or techniques. Most wait for others to experience success before unveiling the product or technique at their own course. Saunders admits he falls into this group, yet images of abundant ABW damage factor into numerous turf decisions in Southwestern Pennsylvania. ABW damage “ranks right up there with anthracnose” among turf issues that arise in the region, he says.
Saunders uses every imaginable tool – pitfall traps, WeevilTrak, monitoring growing degree days, his own eyes – to determine the timing and location of each season’s first ABW application. It’s all part of what he calls a “guessing game” to limit potential damage caused by the pest. Memories of past damage convinced Saunders bringing Carl to Nemacolin was a worthwhile pursuit.
“I was skeptical at first,” Saunders says. “Once we saw the dog work and saw how he worked, we sat down and went over the cost benefits of this and what this could possibly lead to. We are always looking for other tools to help us, and timing is everything when it comes to golf course management. All the issues we had with ABW … We are always looking for as much help as we can get.”
Early signs at Nemacolin suggest trained dogs could provide another tool to locate ABW. Carl returned to the course in September, and the pest was found further from wood lines and closer to fairways than Saunders expected. Carl’s late summer and early fall work will make Saunders rethink his 2016 spray applications and budget.
More field work, academic research, trained dogs and skilled handlers are needed before widespread conclusions can be made about using canines as a reliable tool for locating ABW on golf courses. Carl, after all, has only been working at Nemacolin for two months.
Penn State University associate professor of turfgrass management Dr. Ben McGraw, a leading ABW expert, has conducted multiple trials with Carl, first in controlled settings with test tubes and then on golf courses. Separating a specific pest on an expansive environment like a golf course represents a stark contrast to identifying bed bugs in hotel or dorm rooms, he says.
McGraw increased his work with Carl this past spring and recently conducted a trial at a Central Pennsylvania course. The timing of the trial wasn’t ideal, though, because ABWs are moving from fairways to roughs and tree lines. Full assessments of Carl’s efficiency won’t be determined until next spring, although McGraw says the dog “located a bunch of overwintering sites.”
“We have proven the concept,” McGraw adds. “He’s gotten better from the first controlled study to the second controlled study. His efficiency went dramatically up. He was alerting to positives at a higher rate and his false positives went way down. It’s a learning curve from both standpoints. For us, it’s how to assess him in a trial because we typically don’t work with animals. It’s also a learning curve from their end. They are coming from a really defined system with bed bugs in really closed environments. It’s not as complex of a scent picture for a dog. But at the same time, they have to be super accurate in bed bug detection, whereas in weevil detection it’s not going to be the end of world if he misses a few locations.”
Carl is currently the only dog trained by Scentworx working on golf courses. Two dogs are close to being ready to share Carl’s workload and the company hopes to have five to 10 dogs and handlers trained to work in various parts of the ABW Belt by the end of the first quarter of 2016, according to Peruyero.
Trained rescued dogs have experienced success in commercial agriculture by detecting citrus canker and huanglongbing (HLB) in trees before it is noticed by humans. Citrus canker causes premature fruit and leaf drop, and the disease has spread from Florida to other citrus-producing states such as California, Texas and Arizona.
Peruyero envisions trained dogs making a “significant difference” in the golf industry by providing superintendents with the information they need to make more targeted spray applications. Dogs are covering vast areas in golf and commercial agriculture, but calculating the return on investment is different in each industry. Citrus canker and HLB damage can be easily quantified by assessing the amount of fruit destroyed. A trained dog could reduce the volume of chemicals sprayed if it finds ABW on fewer parts of a golf course than those being treated. Identifying ABW and treating the pest before it spreads also can prevent perception issues caused by poor turf. It takes a dog two full working days – a typical day for Carl lasts between five and six hours – to inspect a course.
McGraw sees trained dogs as a potential tool to determine whether the ABW exists in areas stretching beyond where it is typically found and its activity in the shoulder seasons of fall and spring. “What would happen if you take the dog west of Cleveland where they don’t have the weevil?” he says. “It would be really interesting to know if the insect is there before it becomes a problem.”
Saunders already knows the ABW is a problem in Southwestern Pennsylvania. He’s hoping Carl will provide one more resource to control it.
“It’s all about timing and putting out the best possible product you can for your membership,” he says. “It’s obviously not a fixall. It’s not a quick fix. It’s tool that needs to be established. As we continue to get greener in the industry down the road, if I can spray one less pesticide application, I think we have succeeded. In the end, it’s about being as efficient as we possibly can and giving our membership the best product.”