Ben, a 9-month old, 19-pound beagle puppy, rides up to Donna Kuroda's Herndon home in his $14,000 white Dodge custom mini-van with wall-to-wall carpeting.
His portraits on each side of the van announce he is the "Termite Detection Dog."
David Helms, Ben's handler from Paramount Pest Control in Falls Church, takes out a thick red collar with the words "TERMITE DOG" embroidered on it in blue. Helms says the collar, the white smock he puts on and everything he says to Ben are part of the beagle's conditioning. Everything gets him ready to do his job.
"He's man's best friend and termite's worst enemy," says Robert Outman, president of TADD (Termite, Ant Detection Dog) Services Corp. of Belmont, Calif. Outman trains and leases beagles such as Ben.
Other dogs hunt ducks, herd sheep, uncover smuggled drugs and bombs; Ben and dogs like him can detect the clicking sound and distinctive smell of termites, wood borers, powder post beetles -- your typical wood-destroying insects.
What do termites smell like?
Outman shrugs. "Well, it's the dog who smells it . . ." The highly secret training lasts nine months to one year.
"Let's go to work," Helms says.
Ben starts sniffing along the walls of Kuroda's cinder block garage. He trots through the area with his white-tipped tail wagging behind him.
Helms taps along the walls with a screwdriver and commands, "Dig 'em out! Show me! Dig! Dig! Dig! Show me!"
Ben has found a spot. He scratches along the wall as if he were burying a bone.
Another pest-control company inspected Kuroda's 12-year-old, two-floor house a week or two earlier and told her she would need almost $1,200 of exterminating.
She said she wanted a second opinion, but didn't expect it from a beagle.
"I thought someone was hallucinating," she says. "I was very surprised."
Ben stops and cocks his head like the RCA Victor dog. He starts scratching again. Then he stops and begins to romp around the garage, much to the chagrin of Helms and Outman.
Helms shouts: "No!"
Ben scratches at a few more spots in the garage. Helms and Ben move along to another room.
Ben wheezes, huffs and sniffs along the gold-colored carpet and white molding. Sure enough, he stops again, cocks his head, sniffs and scratches.
Helms pats Ben's head and gives him some food. Outman looks on proudly.
"I developed the concept," Outman said three days earlier in Paramount's Falls Church offices, where Ben works. As Outman spoke, Ben napped, his brown, black and white body languidly elongated across the office floor. "When I first introduced it, they thought I was crazy and were ready to put me in a straitjacket."
The going rate to keep Ben on staff is close to $20,000 for a two-year lease.
Paramount charges $150 for a termite inspection when Ben goes along.
Ralph Hughes, who founded Paramount 20 years ago, says, "After seeing what the dogs were capable of doing, I realized that was not a great expense because the dog can discover termites that inspectors can't discover."
Back on the Herndon job, Ben decides to take a break. When Helms and Outman aren't looking he runs out of the room and up a flight of stairs to where Kuroda's two young daughters are watching television.
Helms and Outman race around the downstairs calling for him.
They finally realize he's with the children and call for him. Ben trots into the room with his tongue and tail wagging.
Helms sighs and says, "It takes patience." Both he and Ben are still in training.
"When he wanders around, he's working," Outman says. "He only responds to active infestations. If nothing's around, he can't respond to it. He looks like a dog that wanders around."
Termites have been Outman's inspiration. A few years ago the 40-year-old animal behaviorist was laying carpet in his home in California when he found the wood-munching vermin making a mid-day snack of his house -- just certified as termite-free.
When Outman called an exterminator, he found that pest control companies weren't responsible for termites an inspector can't see.
"I like to make the analogy that the TADD dog is to the inspector what the X-ray is to the doctor," Outman says."It's the only way to get a complete diagnosis."
While Ben is Outman's only dog in the Washington area, other bug-battling beagles are popping out of the woodwork.
Andrew K. Solarz, a 58-year-old psychologist, and his wife Marilyn own Beacon Dogs Inc. of Annapolis, a company that sells termite sniffing beagles for about $9,500. The 2 1/2-year-old company's dogs, billed as "termite hunters," are trained for about four months and are given final field exercises by Dennis and Linda Britt of American Pest Control of Southern Maryland.
Five termite-hunting Beacon beagles have been sold nationally, but Marilyn Solarz says she and her husband cannot disclose which pest control companies have bought their dogs or how large her kennel of beagles is. She did say the sold beagles have not begun working in the field.
Outman, on the other hand, says he has 50 beagles either training in his Belmont, Calif., headquarters or placed with pest control companies throughout the United States. Sydney, for instance, is in New York, Stewart is in Boston, Tommy is in Houston, and Timmy is in Atlanta.
Outman makes sure his dogs carry a $500,000 insurance policy against professional errors and omissions. "The same professional insurance as a doctor or an accountant has. These guys are the first to get it."
Outman also requires $25,000 worth of insurance on the life of each dog. He says if a dog is incapacitated, he will replace him.
Hughes says he is happy with Ben's performance. "If dogs like Ben were around 20 years ago when Paramount first started," he says, "we'd have a kennel of dogs. Ben is just our first dog. We are eagerly awaiting another from TADD."
Hughes says he hopes to have a dog for each one of his 20 inspectors someday, each one with his own van.