Man's best friend has been used to follow the fox, to locate bombs and to detect drugs. Now, in a kennel on the outskirts of this city, dogs are being trained to sniff for termites.
It's a sideline for Andrew K. Solarz, an animal psychologist and founder of Beacon Dogs Inc., who works mainly on human health projects for the federal government. But in some ways, dog work is his first love.
Back in 1962, when the country was worried about fallout, Solarz studied the effects of a radioactive substance on the behavior of 800 beagles. Known as the "hot dog" project, it led to Solarz writing a series of scholarly articles and contributing a chapter to a 1970 book about beagles.
Solarz moved on to other things in other places, but he never lost his interest in dogs. A television spot three years ago about a California man training termite-sniffing dogs inspired his entry into the growing field.
Termite-sniffing dogs are now well-established workers in the pest control industry, according to George Rambo, director of research, education and technical resources for the National Pest Control Association.
At least a dozen companies across the country use them, Rambo said. Three other firms, including Beacon, train the dogs to find the termites.
"I would like to join your staff," says a Beacon flier picturing a beagle and directed at pest control firms. "I am a steady worker, dependable and have a good disposition. . . . I'm also a big hit with the public. My purchase price is well below most staff salary levels."
Jimmy Hills Jr., of Mooregard Extermination, a Charleston, S.C., firm, described his Beacon dog, Herbie, as "a quality-control tool. We will not do a real estate inspection without the dog. It would be foolhardy."
Beacon is a family firm consisting of Solarz, wife Marilyn, daughter Val and son-in-law T.J. O'Connell, the primary trainer. Since the firm's founding, four dogs have been trained and sold to pest control firms for about $10,000 each. Beacon also sells "maintenance" contracts costing up to $4,500 a year under which the beagles are recertified and retrained as necessary.
Demonstrating the dog's ability, O'Connell hid vials of termites around his house and directed Beacon, "the prototype dog," to search. He led Beacon around the room with a pointer. When the dog sniffed termites, under a rug or in a wall receptacle, it stopped and pawed vigorously. The reward: dog food.
"They want to find termites just like a hunting dog wants to find that duck," said Val O'Connell. "They want to please you."
The Solarz's have developed a two-page dog vocabulary list. It includes phrases like "Let's go to work . . . good dog . . . search room . . . show me . . . termites, where? . . . that's all." Val added "not for dogs" to the list to keep them off the couch.
Termites are difficult for humans to find, Solarz said, because they often work under the surface and shy away from light.
"The dog has this tremendous nose, like X-ray vision, and can smell through walls, through flooring," he said.
Beagles are preferred, said Marilyn O'Connell, because "they are very socially acceptable" dogs. "There is the association with Snoopy," her husband added. "They have a sense of humor and a wide range of emotions."
Since they buy only championship stock dogs, the enterprise has brought the family into contact with the inbred world of beagle raisers, and has won for Andrew Solarz an unexpected place in "Who's Who in Pest Control."
Currently living in the O'Connells' yard are Beacon (who will never be sold, according to Solarz) and Buddy, an apprentice who will be shipped to the New York area this summer after his training.
Before training begins, the handlers send a piece of clothing, usually a T-shirt, so the beagles can become accustomed to their scents. The the handlers come here for training and further bonding with the dogs.
When they are ready to take their place in the pest control work force, the dogs work closely with handlers from the pest control companies. The dogs get to go home with the handlers at the end of the day.
The dog is also a gimmick for the companies. "Our Dog Nose His Termites," advertises Abalene Pest Control, a Poughkeepsie, N.Y.-based firm with a Beacon dog named Abner.
At first, said Abalene president Walter Blank, Abner was "a little moody, inconsistent. If he saw a cat, we were lost. It was difficult getting and keeping his mind on termites.
"We sent him back for retraining and changed handlers. After about a year, Abner is performing quite well."