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Each morning, handler Juan Carlos Valdebenito and his partner Moro (yellow Lab) inspect all of the wood destined to become wine barrels.

International vintners depend on dogs to find wine-tainting molecules

Alejandro Fantoni Sr. was waiting in an airport security line when one of the detection dogs caught his attention. Fantoni struck up a conversation with the handler.

“[My dad] started talking with the trainer of the dog, asking, ‘Can you train dogs to detect any kind of aroma or different scents at a very low concentration?’ and the guy said yes, it was possible,” says Alejandro Fantoni Jr.

Based on the conversation, the elder Fantoni decided to start a first-of-its-kind dog detection program at TN Coopers, a Chile-based cooperage that makes handcrafted wooden barrels for international winemakers.

Fantoni hired a Chilean trainer who prepares dogs to sniff out bombs and drugs for local police forces. His new assignment: to train dogs to detect 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA), a molecule that imparts a musty odor and flavor to wine, rendering it undrinkable, in the TN Coopers production facilities. Fantoni dubbed the effort “The Natinga Project.” Natinga is the Zulu word for “search of origin” and honors the work the detection dogs do to search for the origin    of TCA.

Wood Working

After two years of training, the first two dogs—yellow Labrador Retrievers named Ambrosia and Odyse—joined the team in 2012.

The Fantonis researched multiple breeds and decided to use Labrador Retrievers because of their intelligence and a powerful sense of smell that makes them excellent at detection work. Their friendly dispositions were also a key reason the family wanted to work with the breed.

“We wanted the dogs to be social with people and for people to accept the dogs,” the younger Fantoni explains. “When the dogs are working, we put vests on them and you cannot pet them. … When they finish and we take off the vests, they are friendly puppies that you can touch and pet … and we wanted people to welcome them and not be afraid of them.”

Ambrosia and Odyse started inspecting all of the oak, acacia, and cherrywood shipped to the cooperage and excelled in their new roles.

“We started [the Natinga Project] because we wanted to detect our production facilities … so we had the dogs inspect all of the woods we use to make the barrels and, before we unload [the wood], the dogs sniffed it to check that everything is perfect and, once the wood is unloaded, they double-check the yard where we store the wood every single morning,” Fantoni says. “Because of the dogs, we reject about 10 percent of the containers we receive, containers we were going to use to ship our products to clients; it’s a really powerful tool.”

In 2014, TN Coopers added two new dogs to its TCA detection team: Moro, a 6-year-old yellow Labrador Retriever who retired from a career as a bomb- and drug-detection dog at airports in Chile and Argentina. He was paired with Zamba, a black Labrador Retriever in training.

Buddy System

Fantoni purchases some of his puppies from breeders and pairs them with retired working dogs who need a slower paced environment to spend their golden years. He believes the combination of an older dog and a new recruit makes for the best working dog team.

“You get a puppy with a lot of energy that is trying to sniff everything in sight and a mature dog that has experience and is more accurate that prefers to go slowly, checking every single spot,” he says. “We always bring two dogs for inspections; one dog goes around first to make all the checks and then we double-check with the second dog.”

The Natinga Project was so successful that TN Coopers started offering the service to partner wineries in Chile, Argentina, and the United States. Although there is no charge for the service, Fantoni admits that winemakers expressed some initial skepticism that dogs would be useful for detecting small concentrations of TCA.

To help convince them that the dogs know their stuff, handlers bring in samples of TCA and ask winemakers to hide them around the facility before the dogs arrive. Once the dogs inspect the facilities, the hidden TCA samples are always detected.

“It’s more interesting to do it like this because most of the time we bring the dogs to wineries, they don’t find anything so it might seem like, ‘OK, maybe this is just a show,’ ” Fantoni says. “When we bring these [samples] and the dogs find it during their search, [the winemakers] say, ‘Wow, this really works.’ ”

It doesn’t mean that the process is always smooth.

At one large winery, Ambrosia started doing the rounds and kept alerting on a stainless steel tank. The team, including the handler, laughed because TCA is found on porous materials such as wood, cardboard, or rubber; the compound does not live on stainless steel.

It was believed to be a false positive.

The handler redirected Ambrosia to other parts of the warehouse but she kept returning to the same stainless steel tank. The winemakers, convinced that bringing in detection dogs was a waste of time, were ready to pull the plug on the inspections.

Odyse was given a chance to conduct a secondary inspection and alerted on the same stainless steel tank. Curious, the winemaker opened the barrel and took out a plastic O-ring on the valve, and it was contaminated with TCA.

“After that, all the reactions were like, ‘Wow, wow, this is really accurate,’ ” Fantoni says. “If the dog [hadn’t detected the TCA], the winemaker was going to put a new hose through that old and contaminated O-ring and the wine would have gotten contaminated.”

The New Bunch

The TCA detection team at TN Coopers has changed since Ambrosia and Odyse started working more than a decade ago. Both Ambrosia and Odyse have passed.

Moro retired earlier this year, but still makes occasional trips to the cooperage to visit the workers and poke his nose into piles of wood. Zamba is paired with a black Labrador Retriever named Mamba, and two new recruits, chocolate Labrador Retrievers named Bonnie and Clyde, are in training and will join the TCA detection team later this year.

The method of identifying TCA has changed, too. Ambrosia and Odyse were trained to touch their paws to a potential source of contamination, but winemakers, concerned about dogs touching their products, preferred a contactless signal—the newest recruits freeze and point their noses at a suspected problem.

Fantoni believes that TN Coopers is the sole cooperage using dogs for TCA detection, but he hopes the wine industry will embrace the practice.

“Winemaking is a very competitive industry; winemakers have to deal with the weather—it’s too hot or too cold; there is too much rain or not enough—and issues with labor and the economy and then, when they go to bottle the wine, what if that wine is contaminated with TCA?” he says. “We have an obligation and responsibility to provide the best possible product, and using the dogs is like an insurance policy; it adds a level of prevention that is really cost-efficient … and everyone loves the dogs.” FD

Jodi Helmer writes about animals and the environment, often with a dog (or two) in her lap.

This article originally appeared in the award-winning AKC Family Dog magazine. Subscribe today!

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