The return on investment for a working canine varies by market, as well as whether your dogs are detecting the scents of termites, bed bugs or rodents. Timothy Wong, president of M&M Environmental Services (doing business as M&M Pest Control, or MMPC) in Queens, N.Y., notes the New York City bed bug scent detection market has become “somewhat saturated” in the past decade. Whereas 10 years ago, the expected annual profit margin was about 55 percent, he says, today it’s closer to 25 percent. The percentage can vary, too, of course, by how much marketing value the division brings.
Robert Gallo, who has owned Round the Clock Pest Control, Santa Clarita, Calif., for 18 years, says that while marketing is important, the focus should be kept on the technical, and how accurate the working canines can be. Gallo also is on the board of directors for the National Entomology Scent Detection Canine Association (NESDCA). He got involved because it is a “third-party certifying organization that helps ensure that the highest of standards for working canines are upheld, and as a pest management professional (PMP), I wanted to help guide and educate people on the importance of third-party certification for the integrity of the industry.”
Gallo became a canine handler 12 years ago, and currently his firm has three handlers and working canines. “Over the years, I have seen a lot of pest control and canine scent detection companies go out of business, and I have rescued some dogs from companies that have gone under, to keep them active and working,” he says. “We have also had much success subcontracting with other PMPs.”
Gallo says PMPs need to keep in mind that starting a canine division isn’t going to bring instant success. “It takes time and patience to get it up and running,” he continues. “Purchasing a dog and going through the training is just the start of the new endeavor. It takes time for the dog to acclimate itself and get comfortable with its handlers, its new environment, and all the overwhelming love and attention they will receive from colleagues and clients once taken out into the field.”
Scott Mullaney agrees. “It took us two years to start up our canine rat scent-detection and abatement service, and about a year for the mouse detection service,” says Mullaney, co-owner of Unique Pest Management, Woodbridge, Va. “We conducted business viability studies to get a bearing on what type of service would be provided on what type of properties. You also need to expect to carry the costs of the program for at least four to six months while it gets up and going.”
Because many working dogs have been rescued from animal shelters, Gallo says, they have a “second chance at life” and excel because they are given a purpose. That said, it’s important to emphasize the reward for a positive scent with food or a toy. “If someone is out sick or quits, or we have to change handlers for any other reason, any of our other certified handlers can pick up the leash and work with that particular dog,” he explains. In addition, a handler can treat his or her partner as a pet — but only to a point.
During training, certified handlers learn of the limitations. Gallo offers hiking trips as an example of something not allowed with a working canine. “Such an activity would take the dog off its regular routines and environment,” he says. “If the dog were to get hurt or bite someone, for example, it would be a huge liability to both the company and the handler. Hiking could also result in the dog getting injured or worse.”
Wong advises PMPs to not underestimate the initial investment. “Although the direct cost of basic bed bug scent detection training at an academy is around $15,000, if you factor in all of the other expenses involved, such as adopting and raising the canine, hiring and training handlers for the canine, getting both the canine and the handlers certified, as well as all of the other necessary expenses relating to training, such as travel, food, lodging, insurance, equipment and so on, that initial investment is actually closer to $30,000,” he says.
In addition, consider ongoing expenses such as handler salaries, medical insurance, vehicle and transportation costs, canine food and supplies, routine training, ongoing certifications and general overhead.
Another consideration is whether you will have enough appointments to keep the dog(s) working. Deanna Kjorlien, ACE, co-owner of Green Dog Pest Service in Gig Harbor, Wash., points out that “canine teams maintain their training better when they are in the field working consistently. Make sure you can consistently book a minimum of 20 hours a week of inspections for the dog.” If not, she says, perhaps a canine detection subcontractor is a better bet. Many third-party contractors also are willing to help consult on a division start-up or refresh, too.
“They can help find and evaluate trained detection dogs, structure pricing, train handlers and advise on sales tactics and marketing,” she adds. “I absolutely love helping people with this line of business, it feeds my serial entrepreneurial spirit and my passion for detection dogs and pest control.”
Andy McGinty, CEO of LIPCA Insurance, Baton Rouge, La., notes that if you go the subcontracting route, you still need to check with your insurer first. “Make sure your company is listed as an additional insured under the canine’s insurance policy. That is usually free to request. If you can get listed as a Primary Additional Insured, that is even better. Ask your agent. Sometimes there is a small charge to be listed as the Primary Additional Insured on a certificate, but canine service overall has been a very effective and profitable tool for the pest control industry.”