Two Fresno County dog detector teams, Rufus and his handler Amanda Clark (left), and Brodee and his handler Kaitlyn DeMott (right), act as a line of defense against unwanted plant pests and diseases. (Photo: Natalie Willis/Valley Ag Voice)

By Natalie Willis, Reporter, Valley Ag Voice

During his afternoon training session, Rufus diligently sorted through a mixture of packages, easily detecting which unmarked boxes were carrying fresh produce without cutting the tape and looking inside — all he needed was his nose.  

Two detector dog teams at the Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner’s office work five days a week at various mail parcel terminals, including UPS, FedEx, and Amazon. Rufus’ dog team – comprised of himself and his handler Amanda Clark — is California’s only county-managed detector dog team.  

Rufus’ counterpart and best friend, Brodee — and his handler, Kaitlyn DeMott — are part of the California Detector Dog Team program, allowing him to sniff out packages sorted through the United States Postal Service. According to Melissa Cregan, Fresno County Ag Commissioner, the dog teams are authorized to inspect packages under Memorandums of Understanding and supported by various laws and regulations.  

“[The California Agricultural Commissioners and Sealers Association] send a delegation back to [Washington] D.C. every year to educate lawmakers and meet with our various federal agency partners, and so one of the things that they really talked about was pest prevention in California and the threats to agriculture and the tools that we needed to protect that,” Cregan said. “So that’s kind of where the dog teams came up.” 

Parcels carrying agricultural materials are inspected to ensure that invasive pests are not brought into the state. However, agricultural material is often shipped without a designated marking, leaving mail carriers unaware of the contents of that package. 

The dog team alerts when they detect plant material from an unmarked package, allowing inspectors to check its contents and assess its risk concerning pests or diseases — USPS requires approval to inspect from the shipper, handler or through a search warrant. 

Libby Ouellette, Fresno County deputy agricultural commissioner, explained that the difference in training between the two dog teams prevents Rufus — who was rescued out of Victorville, California — from inspecting USPS packages. 

“Brodee came from the National Detection Dog Training Center in Newnan, Georgia, and Kaitie had to go to a multi-week training there. So, he went through the formal USDA program and the benefit of that is he can go to post offices and do work there,” Ouellette said. 

Statewide, dog teams have intercepted 966 plant pests, including Caribbean fruit flies and reniform nematodes, from July 2021 to June 2022.  


Record rainfall and flooding in California this year brought in an influx of pests, threatening various state commodities ranging from fruits to nuts. Bob Hill, owner of B&D Pest Control Inc. in Madera, told ABC 30 that the increased moisture supplied an ideal breeding ground for various insects. 

“Everything’s damp, mulch underneath the mulch is damp, underneath rocks and stuff like that is damp. So it’s just a perfect breeding ground for the insects,” Hill said. 

One of the most significant threats to the state’s citrus industry is the spread of the huanglongbing disease carried by Asian citrus psyllids. After the initial detection of HLB in Ventura County, various quarantine measures have been implemented throughout the state.  

In a press release, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service expanded its list of quarantined areas for ACPs to several portions of the Central Valley, including all of Fresno, Tulare, Kern, and San Luis Obispo counties, in addition to 18 other counties in California.  

Cregan noted that one Asian psyllid was detected last month in Fresno County but was not carrying HLB.  

APHIS also expanded quarantine measures for three fruit fly quarantines — the Mediterranean fruit fly, the Tau fruit fly, and the Queensland fruit fly. The department, along with the CDFA and Ventura and Los Angeles county ag commissioners, began applying safeguard measures and restrictions on the interstate movement of articles to prevent the spread of these fruit flies to non-infested areas. 

According to a recent study by the University of California Merced and Davis, despite various types of integrated pest management, such as mating disruption, biological control, cultural control, and insecticides, the economic losses from pests in the state remain high.  

Three major pests — codling moth, peach twig borer, and oriental fruit moth — will likely increase with higher temperatures, according to the study. Jhalendra Rijal, UC Cooperative Extension integrated pest management advisor and co-author of the study, explained that these pests significantly impact specialty crops.  

“These three pests are notorious for infesting most of the walnut, almond, and peach orchards of California, causing extensive damages by reducing the quality of fruits and nuts,” Rijal said in a UC news release. 


While all counties fall under the CDFA’s detection trapping program, agricultural commissioners implement various strategies to mitigate harmful pests. Kern County works in close collaboration with the CDFA, according to Cerise Montanio, deputy director at the Kern County Agricultural Commissioner’s office. 

“We also collaborate with stakeholders in various capacities. Pest detection traps are placed in residential neighborhoods (homeowners), orchards, vineyards, farms, packing houses, and at various institutions and facilities where host crops can be found,” Montanio said in an email.  

She noted that there are slight variations within each pest detection program. Still, the CDFA maintains the protocols for each initiative, including time frames for trapping and specific trap placement.  

The commissioner’s office works with the state to develop delimitation projects through intensive trapping to determine a given level of infestation.  

If certain thresholds are met, there may be systematic treatments made to mitigate the pest infestation. The primary focus for Kern County’s detection programs includes the Asian citrus psyllid, European Grapevine Moth, Glassy-winged Sharpshooter, and general pest detection for fruit flies. The county also maintains a contract to perform Phytophthora ramorum program enforcement activities, primarily in nurseries, to mitigate the spread of the disease that causes Sudden Oak Death, Montanio explained. 

Like Fresno County, Kern inspects parcel facilities such as FedEx, UPS, USPS, On-Trac, and facilities with nursery stock as they are considered high-risk locations where pests may be traveling. However, Cregan explained that, unlike Fresno County, Kern does not currently have dog detector teams for these inspections as it has not been written into their MOU with USPS. 

In 2023, Kern County detected several Glossy-winged sharpshooters, but Montanio noted that the county is already deemed as partially infested. The GWSS generally targets grapes and can cause plant diseases such as leaf scorch and Pierce’s Disease by transmitting a bacterium.  

The county has also had five ACP detections to date in 2023 and has implemented several trapping and delimitation projects in the site area to suppress the insect.  

The federal Farm Bill funds most plant pest and disease management programs in California under section 7721. Through this section of the Plant Protection Act, the USDA dispersed over $70 million in funding for 350 projects nationwide. 

With the 2024 Farm Bill delayed, the amount of funding allocated for section 7721 — including dog detector teams — is unknown. 

“These teams are paid for primarily through federal Farm Bill money,” Cregan said. “California, every year, [enters] in — it’s a competitive grant process — and so they put in a request for funding for our dog teams in California. And so that funding amount can vary every year depending on how USDA scores those grants and how they divide the money.” 

Still, Rufus and Brodee will continue their work, acting as a line of defense between invasive pests and the Central Valley. Good boys! 

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