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Chinese drywall detection goes to the dogs

Contractor's German shepherd said to be able to sniff out problem walls

Apr. 12, 2010
John Burrows of All-American Plumbing and Contracting has Snoop, a defective-drywall-sniffing dog, search for defective drywall in a Cape Coral home Monday.  Drywall was suspected by the owners of the home and confirmed by the dog.
John Burrows of All-American Plumbing and Contracting has Snoop, a defective-drywall-sniffing dog, search for defective drywall in a Cape Coral home Monday. Drywall was suspected by the owners of the home and confirmed by the dog. / Andrew west/


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1:10 A.M. — Snoop Dog’s nose knows, says his owner, John Burrows.

The pure-bred German shepherd is capable of snooping out defective Chinese drywall in homes, Burrows claims. He’s offering the sniffing services to those who suspect they have the drywall, but seek confirmation.

Burrows says it’s less expensive and invasive than inspectors cutting holes in walls to prove presence of the product.

“We’re looking to help people make prudent decisions,” Burrows said. “I think people have been worked over enough.”

Burrows, a general contractor who owns the All American Plumbing & Construction Company in Fort Myers, said he first planned to have Snoop trained to detect drugs.

Burrows is also a minister who runs a transitional housing program called Job’s House, for prisoners who have served their time but are at risk of returning to behavior that got them jailed in the first place.

Then the defective drywall problem surfaced. After all, dogs have been trained to sniff out bombs to bed bugs, he figured. Why not drywall?

So he sent Snoop Dog for 800 hours of training at the Florida Canine Academy, where trainer Bill Whitstine teaches dogs to detect bombs, drugs, money, weapons, termites, mold, accelerants and bed bugs .

Burrows, the dog’s handler, hires the pooch out at $395 per inspection through a division of his company, K9 Detection Services.

He started in February and Snoop already has 15 inspections under his canine belt.
Snoop showed his stuff Monday at a home in North Cape Coral.

The coal-black dog trotted in, held on a leash by Burrows. With the command “Seek!” the dog began sniffing the perimeter of each room. Snoop stopped and sat on his haunches when he detected suspected bad drywall.

Doggie school

To make sure the dog wasn’t just taking a rest, Burrows commanded “Show!” Snoop dropped his nose to the spot where the drywall was detected.

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At least one other drywall-sniffing dog enterprise is offering inspections in Myakka City.

Whitstine, who operates the canine academy in Safe Harbor, said he had started playing with a program to detect drywall more than a year ago. “We did a couple of dogs in-house and saw that we could do it, then John approached us with Snoop.”

Whitstine, a retired fire marshal, said the dogs are trained like arson or drug dogs. The training includes a lot of repetition, odor identification, and differentiation between “regular” and defective drywall.

Whitstine's animals have appeared on TV shows including Animal Planet, the Discovery Channel, National Geographic and even Home and Garden, he said.

The methods and the findings of his dogs have been accepted all the way to the Supreme Court, he said, but there is verification involved, either visually or through a lab.

'It's amazing'

For example, if a dog detects cocaine, the white substance is then sent to a lab to verify it, he said.

In the case of defective drywall, a sample would be taken and if the Chinese company name or stamp was on it, no further verification would be needed, he said. If not, it would be sent to a lab — if the homeowner so desired.

The North Cape homeowners, Tom and Phyllis Hefferan, were happy with the results.
“It’s like amazing to me,” Tom said.

Others aren’t so sure. They agree that the dogs are certainly capable of sniffing out the drywall, but question whether the inspection method is really less expensive, and whether results would be accepted by government agencies or in a lawsuit.

“I’ll come out and sniff it for you,” said Lew Lewellyn, a drywall inspector and owner of American Air Testing in Cape Coral. “Once you get that smell in your nose, believe me, you won’t forget it.

He’s sure the dog can probably sniff the drywall, but that doesn’t tell how much is there and what the elevations of the chemical compounds are. “Without scientific testing, you won’t know,” Lewellyn said.

Lewellyn tests the ambient air in the house and charges $500 for the investigation and analysis of the results. If a chunk of drywall is sent to a lab for testing, it’s a couple of hundred dollars per sample, he said.

(Page 3 of 3)

Jack Frost, owner of Drywall Science LLC in Fort Myers, uses a process called X-Ray Fluorescence, a contraption that looks like a space gun and measures the level of strontium in the wall. A high level of strontium is a marker for defective drywall.

“We don’t charge any more than $300 to $500 for inspections,” so the difference in price doesn’t hold up, he said.

“Dogs certainly have a much keener sense of smell than humans,” he said. But what if the drywall isn’t off-gassing sulfur compounds yet, and what about detecting drywall high up on the wall or on the ceiling, he asked.

Need proof

Ken Wilkinson, Lee County property appraiser, said it doesn’t matter whether a human or dog inspects the drywall. They still would have to show proof.

Wilkinson has been dropping the market value by 50 percent for homeowners who can prove they have the defective drywall by filling out a survey and providing evidence.

“I’m not pooh-poohing that a dog can do this,” he said. “It’s smart for the homeowner if they’re worried they have it. We want evidence.

“I can’t just take an affidavit with a paw print from the dog.”

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