Robert Outman, a former police officer who once trained canines to detect narcotics and explosives, has now turned his dogs on termites. He uses teams of beagles to ferret out the pests that find dining on wooden structures so delectable. Each year, Americans across the country spend more than $1 billion to repair damage done by termites.
Like those millions of others, Mr. Outman found out about this problem the hard way. He bought a home that was certified as termite free. But in repairing a squeaky step, he discovered a thriving nest of the insects. He also discovered that the original inspector was not liable for damages. Standard inspection contracts exempt operators from responsibility for structural areas considered inaccessible. Depending on the type of construction, this can range from 50 to 80 percent.
Instead of simply brooding over the problem, Outman saw a market for a better technology for pest inspection. Applying his expertise as an animal behaviorist, he conditioned and trained male beagles to track down termites and carpenter ants. In 1979 he set up shop with only a few beagles.
Business is now booming for Outman's TADD Services Corporation of Belmont, Calif. (TADD stands for termite and ant detection dogs). Business volume doubles yearly, and TADD leases 30 trained beagles to pest-control companies in major cities around the nation.
After extensive research, Outman chose male beagles because they are tractable and intelligent; have an acute sense of hearing and smell; and are small enough to get into crawl spaces. It's the dogs' keen sense of smell and hearing that alerts them to where the termites are. The more termites there are, the more active the beagles become, ``digging'' excitedly at the pinpointed location. (They all get regular pedicures to keep their nails rounded so that no damage is done to indoor floors.)
The program has undergone thorough testing at Ohio State University, where his dogs were certified as detectors of both dry and subterranean termites. The canine crews are also recognized by the National Pest Control Association as a useful industrial tool, and the results of the dogs' findings are admissible as evidence in litigation over termite damage.
Outman is so confident in the abilities of his four-legged inspectors that each carries $1 million in errors-and-omissions insurance. ``They're the only animals in the world that have malpractice insurance,'' he says. To date he has had only one claim.
Outman, who did graduate work in animal behavior, was a member of the dog handler and trainer unit of the San Mateo County (Calif.) Sheriff's Department for 11 years. Because of this law enforcement tie he was eligible for a federal grant, enabling him to study at the military dog training school at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. After this training, he and his dog Prince were two-time gold medal winners in the dog patrol competition at the California state police Olympics. In 1976, Outman was forced into early retirement because of gunshot wounds received in the line of duty.
Now that his current business is on a firm footing, he and his corps of canine inspectors have become minor celebrities, appearing on television talk shows and receiving fan mail.
But in the beginning, fans were few and far between. The pest-control industry ``initially treated the new concept as a big joke,'' he recalls. ``We'd gone to a lot of trouble developing the first really new and effective technology of inspection since the invention of the flashlight and screwdriver, and the professionals just laughed at us.'' The laughing soon stopped when the dogs repeatedly proved their effectiveness, not only on the job, but in field trials overseen by university entomologists and industry consultants.
Details of the conditioning and training program are a closely guarded trade secret. Outman himself breeds some of the dogs, and he works with certain breeders to obtain others. Conditioning begins at the tender age of five weeks. Training continues for nine to 10 months, depending on the individual dog's maturity. When a dog is considered ready to work in the field, it is placed with a pest-control firm on a year-to-year lease.
The dog's handler must also undergo intensive training. To ensure that TADD dogs are used and treated properly, Outman or one of his quality-control inspectors visits each one every 45 to 60 days. Outman himself flies about 200,000 miles a year in placing and checking on the dogs. As an added element of quality control, sometimes his visits are unannounced.
A dog and handler team can inspect eight to 10 average homes a day, at an average cost of $150, 50 percent more than a routine human inspection. Since the dogs find virtually all live infestations, Outman contends, the additional expenditure is well justified. TADD dogs can reportedly find nests containing as few as eight live termites.
The new technology is not completely without its drawbacks. The dogs don't find damage in the absence of live termites and ants. Moreover, there is some concern that TADD's success may spawn imitators who lack Outman's expertise in animal behaviorism, resulting in a host of incompetent detection dogs. In the meantime, Outman and his termite trackers seem to be on to something.