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.

Courtesy of Cathy E. Flinton
Master Muzzle: Duke Flinton is specially trained to detect mold that people might not be able to smell or see.
Joy Lewis/Virginian-Pilot/AP
All ears: Left, a young man pats his hearing dog. The dog was trained to alert his deaf owner to important sounds such as a fire alarm.

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.

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.

Dogs are also tested with a spinning contraption that consists of six arms attached to a rotating wheel. Each arm holds a plastic container with a variety of items inside. Only one container holds mold.

"This is Duke's favorite part of the training," says Mrs. Flinton. Once every three months the academy sends a test, which consists of several sealed containers. These are attached to the wheel. Duke sniffs out the mold, then points, and the packets are sent back to the academy to be scored.

"So far," Mrs. Flinton says, "he's 97 percent accurate." This rating puts him slightly ahead of average compared with his canine colleagues.

"The dogs aren't foolproof," says Mr. Whitstine, "but they're very rarely wrong." They certainly do better than people. Studies show that a visual inspection by humans is accurate only 30 percent of the time.

"There are tests that can actually detect mold in the air, but you don't know where it's coming from. A properly trained dog can take you right to the source of the problem," says Mr. Whitstine.

Mr. and Mrs. Flinton also received training. They spent time at the Florida academy learning how to work with Duke and how to continue training him on their own. Once they returned home, Duke was eager to get started.

Let's follow in Duke's footsteps as he cracks a typical case: Duke arrives at the customer's home, and Mr. or Mrs. Flinton gives the command, "Seek." Nose to the ground, Duke sniffs his way around the house. When he finds mold, he sits down and points with his nose. If the mold is up high, he looks up. He's rewarded with hugs, a "Good boy!" and a treat. Next, the Flintons take samples and send them to a lab to be tested. When they know exactly what type of mold they're dealing with, they call in a specialist who knows how to clean it up and make the house a pleasant place to live again.

The Flintons feel good about the unusual service their furry friend provides. "Duke is a dog who definitely breaks the mold," they say.

Here are some more ways that dogs help humans:

Drug- and bomb-sniffing dogs make their way to the places where illegal drugs or weapons are hidden. They may work in airports and war zones. They also help police keep drugs out of our communities.

Hearing dogs are ears for their owners who can't hear. People who are deaf don't hear when the alarm clock buzzes, the doorbell chimes, or the telephone rings. Hearing dogs listen for these sounds, alert their owners by tugging on their clothes, and then take them to the source of the sound.

Rescue dogs are called in after a disaster such as an earthquake or a hurricane. They find people who are buried in the rubble from collapsed buildings and track those who are lost. Rescue dogs may be required to ride in helicopters or on ski lifts, and often go into dangerous places.

Seeing Eye dogs help people who have vision problems. They lead their owners through crowds and across busy streets, and also know to watch for curbs and unexpected bumps in the sidewalk.

Therapy dogs visit people to comfort them and cheer them up. They spend time with people in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, or special-needs centers.

Dogs also herd sheep, pull sleds, carry and fetch things for people, and help police track down criminals.

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