Zack Jacobs and his fiancée thought they'd found their dream
house -- an old mansion in Miami's Morningside area, but they didn't
like the look of a mildew patch on a ceiling, the roof that leaked
during heavy rain, the moldy edges around the kitchen cabinets.
So they called in the dogs -- Mold Dogs, to be exact.
Tootsie and Snickers, who belong to the Mold Detection Service of
Miami, quickly sniffed out the fungus that had riddled floorboards,
walls and ceilings. Jacobs backed out of the contract in a
''We were very much into get ting this house,'' said the Miami
Shores kitchen wholesaler. ``But it was unhealthy. There were two
rooms that were off the charts. They were unliveable.''
This pair of beagles and their mold-sensitive snouts are in
increasing demand, say their owners David and Jennifer Leshner,
siblings who started Mold Detection Service in January out of, well,
''Being dog lovers, we'd been looking for a business with dogs --
a pet store, dog walkers, anything,'' related 32 year-old David
Leshner, a former investment portfolio manager.
But it was an Animal Planet show about the 20-year-old European
tradition of using dogs to root out mold that caught Leshner's
After researching the idea, he and his sister, a 29-year-old
lawyer, threw their careers to the dogs and ordered two pooches
trained in mold detection from the Florida Canine Academy in Tampa
for $15,000 each. They also got themselves certified as mold
With the American Society of Home Inspectors estimating that 38
percent of U.S. houses harbor mold, mold detection is turning into a
big business across the country as homeowners are becoming
increasingly aware of the fungi and its ill effects.
Mold, which is caused by damp conditions and can grow in as
little as 24 hours, is commonly linked to allergies and respiratory
The strain known as toxic or black mold has been blamed for more
serious illnesses ranging from bleeding lungs to reduced cognitive
skills and even death. Children, the elderly and people with low
immunity are especially vulnerable.
But many in the construction and insurance industries, which are
being hit with thousands of mold-related lawsuits and claims, say
there is little scientific evidence to support the allegations of
noxious health effects. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control is
currently conducting a study designed to end the debate.
What is more commonly accepted is mold's destruction of
buildings. The microbes particularly feast on drywall and more
absorbent building materials, which makes new homes susceptible as
well as old.
With its high humidity and booming real estate development, South
Florida is a prime climate for mold, and mold hunting. ''It's a
perfect place to open this business,'' David Leshner said.
And Tootsie and Snickers, 2-year-old females who were res cued
from the Tampa Humane Society by the Canine Academy, are ideal
employees. They're happy toiling for doggie treats and don't
complain about working overtime. The Canine Academy chose the
pooches for their friendliness toward people and their keen
''To them, it's a game,'' David Leshner said. ``When they know
it's time to work, they get really excited.''
When David Leshner gives the command ''seek,'' the dogs start
sniffing around the room. They're trained to reveal 18 types of
mold. At ''show me,'' they point with their noses, often in a
nodding motion, to the location where they have detected the fungi.
If it's in the floor, they sit on the spot.
After the dogs have signaled the location of the mold, the
inspector takes an air sample by inserting a tube inside an
electrical outlet, air vent or other opening. The tube is attached
to a pump to pull the air into a trap that is later sent to a lab
So far, David Leshner said, the dogs have never failed. ''You
can't hide mold from them,'' he noted.
Other detection methods involve cutting out pieces of wall for
testing, which can be costly, slow, not very accurate -- and can
even spread mold by exposing spores to the air, David Leshner
Mold Detection Service charges by the square foot; a
1,000-square-foot apartment would typically cost $250, plus lab
Gwen Dermis, a financial consultant who is five months pregnant,
considered it well worth the expense. She called Leshner to inspect
her Normandy Isle home, which had been flooded in the past, after
seeing a television segment on mold.
The dogs confirmed her fear of a colony of mold in the bathroom
and the room destined for the new baby.
''I thought it was better to find out now than after the baby's
born,'' she said. `We're now taking out the walls, raising the
floor, cleaning with anti-bacterial scrub, putting in anti-mold
plasterboard. The dogs were wonderful.''
As Dermis and many other Florida homeowners have found, the
problem is that insurers are not required to cover repairs from mold
damage, which can be expensive and can include replacing walls,
floors and ceilings.
Wanting to sell separate policies for mold, one company -- State
Farm -- is battling with the state Office of Insurance Regulation to
exclude mold liability from homeowner's coverage altogether.
An administrative law judge last month agreed that State Farm is
not obligated to cover mold damage, but state regulators will likely
appeal that finding, said spokesman Bob Lotane.
The state, however, has approved other companies' requests to
limit mold payouts to $10,000, Lotane said.
The fungal infestations are fast turning into an issue in real
estate transactions, also.
A bill is pending in Congress that would require a mold
inspection for any home that is the subject of a federal loan.
And more buyers are becoming like Zack Jacobs, who vowed that he
won't close on a home unless it has passed a mold inspection, even
if it's brand new.
''Who do you sue? The builder, the seller, the city?'' he asked.
``I'm going to do this every time I bid on a house.''
It all adds up to a bright business outlook for Mold Detection
Service. The company has already ordered a third dog from the Canine
She'll be another furry addition for the menagerie; after 5 p.m.,
the dogs go home with Leshner and turn into playful pets.
''I thought this was crazy; crazy enough to work,'' Leshner said.
``Our friends laughed, but now they're telling everyone how amazing