Boston museum tries new system for protecting artwork: a dog’s nose

Generally, 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 the scent out.

Say hello to Riley. He is a good boy.

Riley, a 12-week-old Weimaraner, is not the first pup to have job responsibilities far beyond fetch and sit and “get off the couch.” But he appears to be the first trained specifically to detect moths and other pests that could damage high-value artwork in a museum.

“It’s really a trial, pilot project. We don’t know if he’s going to be good at it,” said 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, bedbugs, ants and cancer, among other things.

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An employee at the museum, Nicki Luongo, has trained police dogs on her own time and got Riley as a family pet, Getchell said.

They wondered: Could 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 defense against creatures that can pose a long-term threat to the artwork. As is, 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 called Pepedogs, the museum’s plan is 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 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 the scent out.

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, and then sit in front of artwork when he catches a whiff. Humans could…

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