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This dog sniffs for a living

For kids: Mold can hide behind walls where it can't be seen, but specially trained dogs can sniff it out.

By Geanie M. Roake / April 8, 2008

Master Muzzle: Duke Flinton is specially trained to detect mold that people might not be able to smell or see.

Courtesy of Cathy E. Flinton

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Duke Flinton isn't your average detective. Sure, he's good at solving mysteries, but his real talent lies in sniffing out the clues. With his ears perked, nostrils flared, and stubby tail wagging so hard that his feet slide on a polished floor, Duke, a silky terrier who lives in Utah, is hot on the trail of an intruder.

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The culprit: household mold. You've probably seen mold before. It's that green and black stuff that grows on bread when it's left in the cupboard too long. If water gets into your house and it's not cleaned up quickly, mold may begin to grow on your walls, just as it does on bread. Unfortunately, once it gets started, mold spreads quickly and often grows behind walls and under carpets where it's hard to find.

This is where Duke comes in. Mold has an odor, and with their super sense of smell, dogs can detect it. According to Art Flinton, Duke's owner, dogs' noses are much more sensitive than humans'. "We might walk into a room and smell spaghetti sauce," he says, "but a dog would pick up the individual smells of oregano, basil, tomatoes, and so on."

While working as an insurance adjuster, Mr. Flinton saw firsthand the damage that household mold can cause. When hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, some houses sat in water for weeks. When the flood receded, many homes were literally consumed with mold and had to be abandoned.

When Mr. Flinton heard about training dogs to detect mold, he thought it was a great idea. So he and his wife, Cathy, looked into the possibility of starting a business that used one of these supersmart sniffers and were thrilled to end up with Duke. It's obvious that Duke feels the same way because he never stops "smiling" and wagging his tail.

"Duke enjoys his job," says Mrs. Flinton. "He's always excited when it's time to go to work." Trainers at the school Duke attended say that it's not even work for these dogs. It's just something they love to do.

Duke was trained at the Florida Canine Academy, where dogs learn to sniff out drugs, bombs, molds, and other substances. Not just any dog gets in. The candidates for this school are often mutts who are rescued from shelters. Many of them end up there because they have too much energy and their owners don't know how to cope with them. According to Bill Whitstine, owner of the Florida academy, this kind of animal makes a good mold dog. They also have to be smart, friendly, and have a long snout. Flat-nosed dogs, such as pugs, can't smell as well.

"Duke's naturally good at this," says Mrs. Flinton. "He has a good sense of smell, he's very curious, and feels the need to explore every nook and cranny of new surroundings. I think he was born for this kind of work."

Duke received more than 1,000 hours of training from the canine academy. Learning to be a mold dog can be complicated. There are thousands of varieties of mold, and mold dogs must know how to distinguish between many of them.

Trainers teach the dogs to find and identify mold by hiding packets of it behind window frames or under floorboards and then rewarding them when they succeed. When a dog finds the source of the smell, he learns to alert the trainer by sitting down or pointing to the area with his nose.