Mold dog, new tricks

With toxic mold on the rise, Sacramento has become the West Coast epicenter for mold-sniffing canines

Sydney, the mold-sniffing canine, gets the command to “seek” from one of her handlers.

Sydney, the mold-sniffing canine, gets the command to “seek” from one of her handlers.

Photo By Jill Wagner

“Let’s put your coat on,” said Pamela Demarest to the bouncy dog yanking her violently between every tree trunk and mound of dirt that enticed the animal’s extra-sensitive snout. The black lab-collie mix responded to Demarest’s voice with an almost imperceptible calming of her jacked-up nerves, and Demarest took the opportunity to Velcro a vest around the dog’s narrow chest; it read, “Mold Detectives.”

“She knows this means she’s going to work,” said Demarest, loading Sydney, the $10,000 mold-detecting jumping bean into the back of her white van.

There are only about a dozen dogs in the nation who know how to alert their human handlers to the smell of mold, and three of them are in Sacramento, where toxic mold has sent off alarm bells statewide among legislators, lawyers and regular Sacramentans who blame mold for everything from persistent headaches to cancer.

The seriousness of the issue causes a perfect ambivalence in her clients, said Demarest. They want the dog to find mold so they can avoid any negative health effects, but they don’t want Sydney to find anything because that could mean extensive remediation.

In Elk Grove, Demarest pulled her van up in front of a neat-looking house on a neat-looking street. As Sydney bounded forward, Demarest turned on her brightest public-relations voice, swooning in gratitude over the polite older couple who had cleared a path for her and Sydney around the perimeters of every room. The dog entered, calmed down and immediately started nosing around.

As the pair circled the dining room, Demarest bent over to just about Sydney’s height and pointed to the wall above the baseboards every few feet. “Seek,” she said repeatedly.

Sydney followed Demarest’s hand with her snout, moving confidently and quickly through the rooms as if her nose were so sensitive that even a cursory sniff would alert her to mold lurking behind walls, under floors or even in the ceiling, which is true, according to her trainer, Bill Whitstine.

“If you come in and someone’s cooking spaghetti sauce,” said Whitstine, “you smell spaghetti sauce. If the dog comes in, she smells the tomatoes, the onions, the meat, the spices.”

Sydney carefully nosed through the cleaning fluids under the kitchen sink and paused for a split second at a shaggy mat on the floor. Demarest, curious about even the subtlest hesitation, picked up the mat and turned it over. She replaced it, unconcerned about the slight discoloration on the back, and she and Sydney continued to cruise the floorboards, even getting into a bathroom shower stall together to sniff each of the four walls.

That pause at the kitchen mat might have worried a novice handler, but Demarest recognized it as a false alarm. The dog takes in so many stimuli that she occasionally gets a whiff of something and pauses before she discounts it and moves on.

“It’s like when the hair dryer’s going,” said Demarest, “and you wonder, ‘Did I just hear the phone ring?’ ”

If Sydney had detected mold, she wouldn’t have just paused in her snooping. She would have sat down, alerting Demarest, and then waited for another command. The behavior is called a “passive alert.”

These dogs are trained like bomb dogs, Whitstine explained in an interview from his office in Florida. Pawing at patches of mold isn’t quite as dangerous as pawing at active explosive devices, but it’s enough to distribute mold spores, which irritate throats and lungs, so the dogs are trained to alert their handlers without getting too close to their target.

After sitting, Sydney would have waited for the command, “Show me,” and then she would have pointed with her snout.

Sydney’s professional opinion can be confirmed with air samples, performed by a company such as Mold Detectives Inc., which owns Sydney. The sampler will take a reading from a room and then compare the mold content to that found outside the residence. These air samples can be costly, especially if they have to be taken from multiple rooms, and even then, they do not pinpoint where the mold is growing, only that it exists inside. With Sydney’s help, residents at least know where to start working.

“If dogs can find cocaine, even when it’s masked by coffee and perfume,” said Whitstine, “they can find mold, which isn’t even hiding.”

Whitstine, owner of the Florida Canine Academy and Mold Dog, which trains mold-detecting canines, has been teaching dogs to search out bombs, drugs and even termites since 1989. In the mid-1990s, he said, representatives from Allstate and State Farm Insurance contacted him to see if dogs could be trained to sniff out mold.

With the great swelling epidemic of toxic-mold cases, the insurance industry needed a quick and effective way to pinpoint mold without the added expense of tearing apart and rebuilding interiors based on only a hint of where to start.

Whitstine accepted the challenge, designed a training program and began scouring the humane societies for expert sniffers. Those snatched from the pound in the nick of time seemed to make the best working dogs, Whitstine said. He speculated that because they’d been in a kind of prison, they’d do anything to avoid going back.

From experience, Whitstine knew he needed playful, outgoing dogs driven to perform. The dogs couldn’t be skittish; they had to like all kinds of people and be ready to please. It didn’t hurt if they were feisty enough to be troublemakers.

Sydney, attractive and rambunctious, fit the profile. When Whitstine brought her home, he discovered that she was intelligent and that she loved to work. She became Whitstine’s sixth mold-sniffing canine.

Demarest, who runs pet-related businesses in Sacramento, was hired as a handler by the locally owned Mold Detectives Inc., and she went to the academy, too, to spend a week in training. At first, said Demarest, she meant about as much to Sydney as a pile of leaves. Sydney was talented, but she was also sneaky, so when the two of them were on mold hunts, the dog would wait for Demarest to give away the location of the mold. It turned out that Demarest had almost as much to learn as Sydney, but once the two of them began to work like a team, they were certified together.

To keep the dog calibrated and her instincts sharp, someone needs to practice with Sydney daily, even when the dog doesn’t have any clients. Trained to work for food, Sydney doesn’t eat unless she successfully finds mold.

In Demarest’s office behind her pet-washing business, Launder Dog, she brought Sydney to a spinning contraption with multiple arms fitted with sealed cups. Demarest spun the arms around with a tip of her shoe and then Sydney went from cup to cup, sniffing. She bypassed the moldy cheese and other scents designed to trap her if she were losing her touch. Sydney quickly found the mold and sat down excitedly, salivating. On command, she pointed with her nose. Demarest rewarded her with a handful of kibble from a pouch she wore around her waist.

Though there are countless varieties of mold, Sydney can’t distinguish between so-called toxic molds and other home-invading varieties.

“And we don’t want her to,” said Demarest. Any mold is indicative of water damage, which creates the ideal atmosphere for mold growth of all kinds.

Though Demarest estimates that Sydney correctly identifies mold 95 percent of the time, it’s still uncertain who her best clients might be. There are three mold-detecting dogs in Sacramento—the other two are owned by fireman David Rinderneck and his family—and none of them seem to get much work from property owners. In fact, citing a lack of work, Demarest recently decided to return Sydney to Mold Detectives to work with a new handler. All mold detection is expensive, and the dogs are no exception. Whitstine imagines that real-estate inspectors and other business people might see Sydney’s services as a bargain.

Imagine if a hotel showed signs of mold-damage, said Whitstine. Rather than order an expensive air sample from each of a few hundred rooms, the owner could have Sydney tour the property in a matter of hours and pinpoint each wall or shower stall that masked a serious problem. Not only would the dog prove a cost-effective detection device, she’d tell the hotelier exactly where to begin remediation.

In the case of the house in Elk Grove, no remediation was necessary. Sydney didn’t hit on anything during her 15-minute home inspection, and Demarest didn’t hesitate to give the house a clean bill of health. With some strain, she loaded her excitable companion back into the van and headed back to Sacramento, confident that Sydney’s nose knew for sure.