This museum pooch's job is to sniff out pests

Riley, a 12-week-old pup, is trained to detect moths and other insects that could damage artworks in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Riley, a 12-week-old pup, is trained to detect moths and other insects that could damage artworks in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.PHOTO: REUTERS

BOSTON • Say hello to Riley. He is a good boy. The 12-week-old weimaraner is hardly the first pup to have job responsibilities far beyond "fetch" and "sit".

However, he appears to be the first to be trained specifically to detect moths and other pests that could damage high-value artwork in a museum.

"It's a trial, pilot project. We don't know if he's going to be good at it," said Ms Katie Getchell, deputy director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. "But it seems like a great idea to try."

No technology is as powerful at detecting scents as the nostrils of dogs, which have long been trained to use their superior schnozzes to sniff out explosives, cadavers and ants.

Museum employee Nicki Luongo had trained police dogs on her own time and got Riley as a family pet, Ms Getchell said.

They wondered: Could Ms Luongo train Riley to detect insects that tend to eat through textiles and wood when given the chance?

If so, it would be another layer of defence against creatures that can pose a long-term threat to artwork.

The museum already has a variety of pest-control tactics, including quarantining new artworks before they are placed in galleries.

But no amount of prevention can change the fact that the museum has more than one million people passing through a year. Moths and other bugs might occasionally hitch a ride on a visitor's coat or be attracted to the food-preparation areas.

According to Mr Pepe Peruyero, who runs a dog-training company called Pepedogs, the museum's plan is entirely plausible. "Every insect we've been able to work with, we've been able to train dogs to accurately and consistently detect them," he said.

Generally, dogs are trained to recognise scents much the same way you might train your dog to sit: by offering a reward. When dogs associate a scent with getting a payoff, they become adept at seeking it.

The challenge then becomes getting the dogs to alert humans once they have discovered the scent.

In the museum's case, Riley will be taught to learn specific bugs' scents, then sit in front of an artwork when he catches a whiff. Humans could then follow up and check on pieces where bugs might be hiding.

While Mr Peruyero was not aware of any museums that have used dogs for pest control, he said there was a wide variety of ways humans had harnessed them.

Dogs have been used to find larvae on golf courses more than six months before they could hatch and destroy the turf. And utility companies have trained dogs to sniff out the odours of natural gas to detect pipeline leaks.

If Riley is successful, museum officials would attempt to share what they learn with other museums and organisations, Ms Getchell said.

But visitors should not expect to see Riley wandering among the exhibits. He will do his work behind the scenes, exploring public areas only during off-hours.

That said, museum employees have been overwhelmed by the positive response after Riley was introduced to local media.

They do not want to distract from the museum experience and create a carnival atmosphere, but they are already wondering if they can find ways to please Riley's fans.

Meet-and-greet sessions? An Instagram account? "The staff are overwhelmed by the excitement to see and meet him," Ms Getchell said. "We don't want to deprive the public of that."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 22, 2018, with the headline 'This museum pooch's job is to sniff out pests'. Print Edition | Subscribe