Our question-and-answer session this month focuses on David Latimer, founder of Vincent, Ala.-based World Detector Dog Organization. He is a master trainer of canines for a variety of field work, including bed bug and termite detection.
1. As a former police officer and K9 unit trainer, how did you get started training canines for pest detection?
The transition to pest detection was more of a natural evolution than it might first seem. My first exposure to using dogs in odor detection was in the military in the early 1970s with narcotics dogs. I traveled to San Diego, Calif., a few years ago and observed the U.S. Navy’s dolphin and seal training programs. The comparisons between training these animals and training dogs for odor detection were enlightening, and confirmed for me that our training program was on track.
My first exposure to canine pest detection was with termite dogs. I was intrigued by the concept of pest detection with dogs because it made sense to me that if a dog could find the odor of cocaine, C4 or arson evidence, they should be able to find termites.
I added mold dogs to the business in 2002, then bed bug dogs in 2005. My wife thought I’d lost my mind when I told her I was going to hide termites in our house for dog training. She really freaked when I told her I was going to start hiding bed bugs! Honestly, I thought my first call to train a bed bug dog was a joke being played on me by some of my cop friends. It turned out, however, that the guy who called was serious — and as they say, the rest is history.
2. Has canine inspection for bed bugs evolved over the years, or has it been rather straightforward? Do you see it changing in the future in any way?
Using dogs for pest detection has evolved from more of a novelty in its infancy many years ago, into what is today: a respected and highly profitable enterprise made up of dedicated professional handlers and trainers. Many pest management professionals today rely on trained detector dog teams to provide better and more reliable pest detection services to the public than can be provided by human inspectors alone. Newer, more effective training techniques for dogs and handlers have certainly contributed to the transformation of canine pest detection. The profession has gone from a little-understood endeavor to one that is firmly rooted in the science-based principles of animal psychology and behavioral science.
I expect that, for those trainers who are willing to listen to animal behavior experts, it will continue to improve as scientists make further advancements in improving our ability to communicate with and understand dogs.
3. What advice do you have for pest management firms looking to add a canine team? Are there best practices for preparing for this expansion of their business?
Dogs work cheap, rarely call in sick and never ask for a raise. A well-trained dog can produce a lot of revenue for a pest management company. The potential is there for the entrepreneur who is willing to get out and promote the dog’s services to potential clients.
Talk to other companies that already have and use dogs in their businesses. Ask them how bringing a dog into their business changed things. It’s also important to diligently research the kennel or trainer from whom you plan to purchase a dog. Ask for references, and contact them. Ask the trainer how many people have bought three, four, five or six or more dogs from his company, and make sure to contact these people. Not only can these customers tell you about the quality of the trainer’s program, they may also offer some good advice on how to get your business going.
Ask the references you call about customer follow-up. How difficult is it to reach the trainer when they have a question about the dog? Ask the handlers you call for the names of other purchasers that the trainer may not have mentioned. Don’t be overly impressed by the sales pitch from the trainer — it’s easy for someone to tell you how great and wonderful they are, and it can sound impressive, but the proof is in the customer service and the quality of the product. Use the same diligence when choosing a trainer that you would use when making any major purchase or investment.
4. Similarly, what best practices and advice do you have for pest management firms looking to take their existing canine services to the next level?
Market, market, market, then market some more. Think about how you can increase public exposure for your new tool. Have uniforms made with a logo that promotes the canine program. Put the logo on company vehicles, business cards and stationery. Promote the dog team’s services to your existing clients and to potential new clients.
Attend social functions and speak to as many clubs and organizations as you can. Whenever possible, perform demonstrations of how the dog can locate hidden bed bugs. People love dealing with well-trained and obedient dogs, and will associate good behavior with quality work. On the flip side, they will associate an unruly, out-of-control dog with unprofessional work. Make sure you have basic obedience well in hand before you get in front of people.
5. What’s next for you in your career?
Since retiring from public service and turning over day-to-day operations of my kennel to my son, I now do on-site field training of dogs and handlers. I also conduct regional training seminars. These days, I also spend more time in the field, interacting with and testing handlers and dogs. I’ve seen the quality of detection services offered by pest detection dog teams steadily improve over the past decade, and I feel grateful to have played a role in that. I also see the operational problems that handlers encounter, and help them work through them.
Comprehensive testing can be credited for much of the improvement in canine pest detection. I believe we can continue to improve if we continue to test and challenge ourselves, and insist that our profession maintain a high standard of excellence.
You can reach Editor Heather Gooch at email@example.com or 330-321-9754.