PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Maine potato farmers might have a quicker way to protect their crops from dangerous diseases, thanks to a passionate dog trainer and her charges.

When she first heard that no one had ever taught dogs to detect potato diseases through careful, odor-based training, Sanford native Andrea Parish decided to become the first to do it.

“I knew that if dogs could detect bombs, drugs, cancer or COVID, they could detect anything,” Parish said.

Farmers typically are limited to visual detection of common potato diseases such as potato virus Y and bacterial ring rot, which is not visible until after potatoes have a serious infection. While potato virus Y is not dangerous for human consumption, it is a virus that farmers seek to detect as early as possible to avoid long-term crop damage and loss.

Parish has traveled to at least a few dozen farms from Oregon to Maine to demonstrate how dogs can stiff and detect all three strains of potato virus Y as well as bacterial ring rot. Through her connections with agricultural researchers and growers, she has also allowed farmers to send potato samples to her for her dogs to test.

In a matter of minutes, the dogs can sniff the samples and indicate through gestures which test tube contains the potato disease. They can also detect the diseases in crop and equipment storage units and in fields.

Parish visited the Aroostook Research Farm in Presque Isle Tuesday to demonstrate the skills of her 3-year-old black Lab Zora. After Parish set up potato samples, Zora accurately detected the potato virus Y variety every time Parish placed it in a different spot.

When Zora showed off her skills to a small group of UMaine Cooperative Extension researchers, they all were amazed at her speed and accuracy.

“I think it could be interesting to see how well this could work [at Aroostook farms],” Greg Porter, professor of crop ecology and management at the University of Maine, said. “I’m impressed by how quickly we can determine the level of infections.”

Unlike humans, dogs have a stronger sense of smell, which makes them the ideal detectors of potato virus Y and other diseases before symptoms are evident.

A former physical therapist, Parish is now the owner of Nose Knows Something, which trains dogs to detect potato diseases. Though she initially tried training search and rescue dogs, her career plans changed after her dog suffered a serious injury.

She later learned from her husband David Parish, a potato business consultant in Texas, that crop disease detection dogs were virtually nonexistent. Aside from a study on detection dogs working in Florida citrus crops, no research has been done on the subject, she said.

But now she and her three trained detection dogs are hoping to help farmers save time and resources.

“I’d like to give farmers an option [for disease detection] that is more accurate and cost effective,” Parish said. “The military has 30-plus years of research and even they have said that dogs are the best at detecting bombs. I took that same model and brought it to farming.”

Potato seed farmers in central Aroostook contacted Wednesday were just hearing about dog-based disease detection for the first time, and were largely reluctant or not interested in trying that method.

But Parish hopes to expand her connections with seed farm organizations and possibly conduct a long-term research study on the effectiveness of detection dogs on potatoes and other crops.

Doing so could give the farming world a better understanding of how dogs could contribute to farmers’ overall success, she said.

“My goal is to give them another tool in their toolbox,” Parish said.

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