A 12-week-old Weimaraner named Riley is the newest employee of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Riely is hardly the first pup to have responsibilities beyond “fetch,” “sit” and “get off the couch.” But he appears to be the first to be trained specifically to detect moths and other pests that could damage high-value artwork.
“It’s really a trial, pilot project. We don’t know if he’s going to be good at it,” said Katie Getchell, the museum’s deputy director. “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, bedbugs, ants and cancer, among other things.
Nicki Luongo, an employee at the museum who has trained police dogs, got Riley as a family pet, Getchell said. Luongo started to wonder: Could she train Riley to detect insects that tend to eat through textiles and wood? If so, it would be another layer of defense against creatures that can pose a long-term threat to the artwork.
The museum has a variety of pest-control tactics, including quarantining new artwork before it is placed in galleries. But no amount of prevention can change the fact that the museum has more than 1 million people passing through each 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 Pepe Peruyero, who runs a dog-training company, the museum’s plan is entirely plausible. While Peruyero was not aware of any museums that have used dogs for pest control, he said his company has trained dogs to find larvae on golf courses more than six months before they could hatch and destroy turf.
“Every insect we’ve been able to work with, we’ve been able to train dogs to accurately and consistently detect them,” he said.
Dogs are trained to recognize scents much the same way you might train your dog to sit: by offering a reward. When dogs associate a scent with getting a reward, they become adept at seeking out the scent.
The challenge then becomes getting the dogs to alert humans once they have discovered the scent. In the museum’s case, Riley will be trained to learn specific bugs’ scents, then sit in front of artwork when he catches a whiff. Humans would then follow up and check on pieces where bugs might be hiding.
Visitors should not expect to see Riley wandering the exhibits. Getchell said he will do his work behind the scenes, exploring public areas only during off-hours.
That said, museum employees have been overwhelmed by the public response to the news of Riley’s new career. While they don’t want to distract from the museum experience, they are wondering if they can find ways to please Riley’s fans. Meet-and-greets? An Instagram account?
“The staff is overwhelmed by the excitement to see and meet him,” Getchell said. “We don’t want to deprive the public of that.”