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Hero dogs with a nose for trouble

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When it comes to causing problems for people trying to smuggle in prohibited fruits and plants at Miami International Airport, Trouble lives up to his name.

The six-year-old beagle, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agriculture detector dog, recently helped intercept 20 Mediterranean fruit flies hidden in a quince fruit and prevented a potential disaster for Florida's citrus industry. With his handler Sherrie Ann Keblish, Trouble has used his nose in 1,800 seizures of dangerous fruits, meats and plants since going on active duty five years ago.

If Trouble is aptly named, so is Gentle Ben. The 165-pound chocolate Newfoundland is a laid-back therapy dog who visits juvenile detention centers and hospitals as part of the Delta Society therapy dog program in Washington State.

His "partner," Pat Dowell, says the gentle giant loves the attention and hugs he receives during his therapy visits. The presence of the shaggy-haired dog helps calm the youngsters behind bars, many of whom have been abused.

In return, "he gives unconditional love" to the young people and special-needs children he meets, she says.

Top dogs

The energetic beagle and the low-key Newfoundland, along with six other service dogs, were honored with medals Wednesday at the "Paws to Recognize" ceremony held in New York, a Hollywood-style walk of fame event in which the dogs' paws and names were imprinted in cement.

The "Canine World Heroes" program was created by Pedigree Food for Dogs, in partnership with Wal-mart, to recognize "the best of the best" service dogs in the United States and other countries, according to Alice Nathanson, spokeswoman for Masterfoods, parent company of Pedigree.

Finalists for the awards were selected by service dog agencies and represented search and rescue dogs, police dogs, guide dogs and military dogs. Winners were chosen in an online vote, which ran from April to Labor Day on the company's Web site. At least 100,000 votes were cast, with Trouble and Gentle Ben leading the pack.

Trouble is the top dog in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's elite Beagle Brigade, a pack of 87 pooches who undergo at least eight months of special training before being assigned to agriculture inspection. The dogs' jobs involve sniffing passenger bags for foreign bugs or diseases that could be harmful to the U.S. agricultural system, Homeland Security official Robert Bonner said.

At the ceremony, Bonner, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said the 1,200 other dogs under his authority helped sniff out 1.3 million pounds of illegal drugs and $27.9 million worth of drug money last year. Dogs like Trouble are also involved in preventing agri-terrorism intended to contaminate the U.S. food supply.

"These dogs are critical to protecting our borders," Bonner said.

Beagles are preferred as agriculture detectors dogs not only because of their acutely sensitive sense of smell (an estimated 1000 times stronger than humans, according to research), but also because of their passive, non-aggressive nature.

Among the other dogs honored:

Kilo's Black Molli: A black Labrador retriever who helps patrol the coastal areas of Louisiana. The certified search-and-rescue dog has assisted her owner, Lisa Higgins, on over 150 searches and helped recover 11 homicide victims. With her acute sense of smell, she once found drugs and a murder weapon buried four feet underground, says Higgins, the first female search-and-rescue officer in Louisiana.

Sam: A search-and-rescue German Shepherd who works with his handler, Guenther Findling, with the Red Cross in Germany. Trained to locate missing persons, he barks an alert and remains with the person until his handler arrives.

Fluffy: An abused Iraqi dog originally named after the country's former prime minister, Tariq Aziz. The German Shepherd was adopted by Army Sgt. 1st Class Russell Joyce who renamed him and trained him to walk patrols with the soldiers during his tour of duty. Fluffy is now a "demilitarized" dog living in Fayetteville, N.C. while his owner serves in Iraq. Standing in for Fluffy at the New York event was "Dakota," the German Shepard mascot for the U.S. War Dogs Association.

Reuters contributed to this story.