Dogs improve our lives in many ways — from service dogs that perform a variety of specialized tasks for their disabled companions to working dogs, such as those that are trained to help with search and rescue operations.
But what role can canines play to help homeowners? The answer is mold detection.
Mold sniffing dogs, like drug or bomb detection dogs, use their finely tuned olfactory sense to identify and locate their quarry – in this case, up to 18 species of toxic mold found in our homes and workplaces. With over 600 hours of specialized training and required annual re-certification, these dogs aren’t just lovable pets. They have a job to do, and they take it seriously.
The use of these dogs is not without controversy. Some have argued that they are not as reliable as technology when it comes to identifying mold. However, even the latest in mold technology isn’t perfect and dogs actually do offer a few advantages when it comes to pinpointing the source of mold in the home, particularly when it is hidden.
Check out the traditional techniques for mold detection and the pros and cons of using dogs as part of a mold inspection in your home.
Science First: Traditional Techniques for Mold Detection
While proper mold detection includes a lot of cutting-edge technology, there are some downsides to the various collection methods:
Air Sampling for Mold
Although air sampling has received near universal support when it comes to mold inspections, many people don’t realize there are some downsides to this technique.
Even slight differences in the air flow in the home can significantly impact spore concentration levels. Furniture, cabinetry and other obstructions can also radically alter the accuracy of the air sample from one area of the room to another.
Although they do offer quantitative data, the reliability of what that data means is a matter of some degree of interpretation, even when tests are meticulously conducted. In addition, although air sampling can identify the presence of mold in a room, it is not as good at identifying the source, a job left to an experienced mold inspector to locate using additional technology, an experienced eye, and in many cases, some educated guesswork.
Moisture Meters and Thermal Scans
These technologies are effective at identifying the precise locations of high humidity and/or relatively extreme temperature gradients, both of which can create conditions ripe for mold. Once a mold problem has been confirmed, these are powerful tools in finding the source, even when it is behind walls.
On the other hand, sometimes the conditions that are ripe for mold disappear, but the mold can remain. This can be the case, for instance, when seasonal changes impact the moisture leaking into the home. This situation renders such techniques more or less powerless to identify the location of a mold source.
Mold Sniffing Dogs: Advantages and Limitations
Even the best-trained mold sniffing dogs are no magic pill when it comes to the mold problems facing many homeowners. However, they do offer some significant utility as part of the mold inspection arsenal. Here are a few things trained mold detection canines may offer the homeowner:
Pinpoint the Source
In many cases, mold sniffing dogs can use their olfactory prowess to lead their handler to the source of the mold, even when it is not visible on the first inspection. This can be a major benefit when it comes to deciding when to pull apart the wall to conduct a physical sample.
In fact, this ability to find the source even when hidden is a fairly major advantage in terms of saving time and money with a faster search that potentially avoids unnecessary property damage in the pursuit of where mold is growing.
Another advantage of dogs is that they can move through an area much more quickly than with more traditional mold sampling techniques. This can be a big advantage in terms of focusing mold remediation efforts and identifying areas for further testing on more expansive buildings such as offices and retail spaces.
Smell the Mold Itself
As we discussed above, some mold detection methods use temperature gradients and moisture detection to locate conditions that are ripe for mold behind obstacles such as walls or floors. That is great if those conditions are still present. On the other hand, these dogs are trained to detect spores (both active and inactive) so they are honed on the problem itself, not the conditions that may or may not be related to the problem.
On the other hand, mold sniffing dogs are not a panacea for the difficult task of identifying and remediating mold in the home or workspace. In fact, even the most highly trained sniffer dogs have weak spots:
The height of a dog is somewhat of a natural limitation in terms of where they can identify their quarry. While this can be overcome with transportable scaffolding, it isn’t as easy as putting the pooch on an extension pole. Mold can and does occur in the ceiling, for example, which can be a difficult area for these canines to reach.
Limitations in Scope
Most of these canines are trained to identify 18 common types of toxic mold, although this represents only a fraction of the more than one hundred types of potentially dangerous types mold that are possible. Still, to be clear, their training is focused on the most likely offenders common to residential environments, such as the extremely toxic black mold Stachybotrys chartarum.
Further Testing Likely Necessary
Dogs can’t provide their handlers with quantifiable data, such as airborne concentration, or species-specific identification between the types of mold they can detect. And, their extensive training requires relatively high fees to justify their use. However, these costs are likely to pay for themselves in the right circumstances such as where other methods to find the source have failed or as a first pass on large properties.
Conclusion: Is a Mold Detection Dog Helpful?
Mold detecting dogs are not a substitute for other mold inspection methods, but they may be able to help refine efforts towards mold remediation, saving homeowners time and money by helping to focus additional testing and repairs.
It is unlikely that mold detection dogs will replace traditional mold detection techniques anytime soon, but they can be considered a viable tool for the homeowner grappling with a mold problem.