0410termitesaud"Termite dog" owner James Benners talks about Max's daily training routine.
There may never be a machine that can rival a dog’s nose for identifying odors. That’s why dogs are widely used by law enforcement for finding bombs, drugs, arson evidence and missing persons.
Now, scent detection dogs are increasingly employed by private businesses in new and creative ways. The latest trend: pest control.
Meet Max, a 1-year-old beagle mix who loves nothing better than the smell of termites. When he catches a whiff of the wood-chomping bugs, he knows he’s going to get fed.
About a month ago, Max began working for a Gainesville company, Guard Dog Termite & Pest Solutions Inc.
"He’s a great partner," said company owner James Benners. "He’s extremely accurate."
Max is trained to recognize the pheromones, or hormone-like chemicals, that are given off by live termites. He can sniff them out inside walls and under floors, giving him an advantage against his human competitors.
"Your typical inspector looks for visual signs of termites, and that’s usually after the home has already been damaged," Benners said.
Because of the difficulty in locating hidden termites, he said, visual inspections have an accuracy rate of only about 30 to 40 percent.
Benners found this limitation frustrating when he was working for other pest control companies. Then he heard about termite dogs, and he decided to venture in a new direction.
"I called the company ‘Guard Dog’ because I knew when I started my own company, I wanted to have a termite dog," he said.
But fulfilling his dream didn’t come cheap.
"The dogs cost $10,000, and they’re handler-specific (working only with people who train them)," Benners said. "So most companies don’t want to fool with them."
Max began life as a homeless dog. He was rescued from a Florida animal shelter by the Florida Canine Academy near Tampa Bay, which trains dogs to detect termites, bedbugs and even household mold.
The high price of a termite dog reflects the fact that each one requires about 600 hours of training.
"It does take a lot of time," said Max’s trainer in Florida, Bill Whitstine. "Not every dog can do it. Only about one out of 10 make the cut. They have to have the drive and desire."
Whitstine said his training academy obtains most of its dogs through humane societies.
"We look for ones that are happy and like to play," he said. "Sometimes the ‘troublemaker’ dogs, the ones who are always getting into something, work out really well if you can channel that energy."
When Benners decided to purchase Max, he and his wife Danna had to go down to Tampa and take 40 hours of handler training classes. Now that Max is living in their home, they must put him through refresher training exercises daily to keep his skills honed.
"He has to find termites every day so he can be fed," Benners said. "He’s not a pet. He’s a working dog."
When Max detects the scent of termites, he is trained to sit and look at the inspector. He is then asked where the termites are, and he points with his nose toward the source of the odor.
Beagles are ideal for this sort of work because they are scent hounds, instinctively keeping their nose to the ground most of the time.
And while larger breeds are often used for law enforcement purposes such as bomb detection, Benners said, "Mainly beagles are used for termite inspection, because they can get into tight spaces."
He said most people he encounters have still never heard of termite dogs, so he explains what the animals can do. Customers are given the option of either having a visual inspection, which is cheaper but less accurate, or they can pay extra to have their home searched by Max, who has a better chance of finding termites before they cause extensive damage.
Benners said having a canine partner has made his occupation more enjoyable.
"I feel great about working with Max. I love taking him out on jobs," he said. "I like the way people react to him. And they remember the name of our company, because they remember the dog."