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Has weed detection gone to the dogs?

Researchers train dogs to locate weeds. Dachshunds digging for weeds.

The journal Invasive Plant Science and Management features an article in its June issue about trained detection dogs that can locate specific weeds more accurately and at a greater distance than humans.

The journal, produced by the Weed Science Society of America, noted that while dogs and humans were comparable in finding large- and medium-sized plants, the dogs had an edge in locating small plants.

Three dogs, a mixed-breed shepherd and two German shepherds, and 12 humans surveyed a field for spotted knapweed during four sets of seasonal trials in Montana. The dogs, Nightmare, Tsavo and Rio, had an overall success rate of 81 percent, while the humans were successful 59 percent of the time. With small infestations, the dogs registered a 67 percent success rate versus 35 percent for the humans.

Humans did rate higher in precision than the dogs, with 100 percent for humans and 94 percent for the dogs. Tsavo gave more false alerts than either of the other two dogs or the humans, possibly because of his propensity for giving chase to furry inhabitants of the field.

Researchers say they may have only scratched the surface of possibility with the study. “Clearly, the scent training and field research techniques we employed could easily be extended to detection of other plant species,” the study said.

As an agricultural journalist, I’m bound to sniff out information wherever it is buried. I hope I’m not barking up the wrong tree here, but is it too far-fetched to suggest that Nightmare and Rio (not Tsavo) might also be trained to detect small glyphosate-resistant weeds like Palmer amaranth?

Just as importantly, could they be compelled to dig up large Palmer amaranth and transport the plant to the edge of the field? (This could give whole new meaning to the phrase, “Who let the dogs out!”)

Don’t laugh. If geese can be trained to eat weeds in a field, or if farmers can become so desperate they would burn weeds in a cotton field with a flame thrower, which we’ve resorted to in the past, we should be able to train natural diggers, maybe Dachshunds, to dig out weeds. They’re certainly cheaper than hoe hands, requiring only a pat on the head and bowl of dog chow.

If a primary component of weed control is detection by the senses, it appears from this study that the nose can be more powerful than the eye.

As for right now, I would certainly think that the jobs of crop scouts are still safe, as long as they don’t go running off into the woods at the first sight of a ground squirrel.

A full text of the article is available at

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