Rescue dog trained to sniff out illegal wildlife


ATLANTA - Viper was one of many Labrador retrievers in metro Atlanta looking for a family. He was recently taken in by the Atlanta Lab Rescue organization and was lucky to find a home, but it's far from conventional.

Instead of chasing tennis balls, he's chasing smugglers in a new pilot program from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. As a federal agent, he sniffs out illegal wildlife and wildlife products coming into the U.S. ports.

"I was not that enthusiastic at first about using our dogs for customs work," said Atlanta Lab Rescue Director Becky Cross. "I thought that every dog should be curled up in front of the fireplace in a cozy home."

Cross said her feeling changed when she and others with the group visited the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Detector Training Center in Newnan, where Viper and his canine colleagues are trained. She called it an unbelievable place where the dogs are out playing and training all day.

"There are some dogs that live to work. They are crazy, high-energy dogs who tear up toys and dig up yards and can really try your patience as a family pet. The custom dogs get to channel this energy and dive into a job they love and get to hang out with their handler all day every day. And when they retire, their handler usually adopts them," Cross said.

Atlanta Lab Rescue has been in operation for a little more than six years. The nonprofit group rescues dogs from all over the Southeast who are in shelters, or whose owners can no longer care for them.

"Our average cost per dog for vetting and boarding is around $800," Cross said. "Treating heartworm and dealing with issues relative to neglect drives the cost per dog up significantly. We depend heavily on fundraisers and donations to cover these costs."

Cross stressed the Atlanta Lab Rescue is always looking for foster families, adoption day handlers and people to help transport the dogs from shelters into foster homes. Anyone interested can email

"There are more labs and lab-mixes in the shelters than any other breed," Cross said. "Despite their popularity, they can be a difficult breed to own due to their size and athleticism. They are smart, good-natured and live to please. With time and attention, a Lab will easily be the best dog you've ever owned."

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