Professional Pest Controller Magazine Issue 101

26 November 2020

Meet the member: It’s a dog’s life with Cape SPC


CAPE SPC’s Luke Jones talks about going from life in the British Army to hitting the road with working dogs.

Meet the member Cape SPC British Pest Control Association

I grew up with dogs all my life, but my journey into working with dogs began when I was 18, and I was in the jobcentre with a friend.

I already had a job at that point, but my friend was looking for one, and I was there for support, just idly searching the listings on one of the machines.

I didn’t think for a second I would see anything interesting, but there it was: ‘Dog handler, British Army’. That was it, I dropped everything and joined up.

When I eventually left the army I went into security, which I didn't particularly enjoy – it was on a night shift, sat for 12 hours with a protection dog looking for jobs that suited me and my drive, when I saw an advert for a bed bug detection dog trainer with Mitie (now Terminix).

They took me on to set up the bed bug detection teams and I ran the section for three years; it gave me my start in the industry, and from there I began looking at a new challenges and how to keep developing the capability in the industry.

An old friend, who is a currently serving member of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps (RAVC), put me in touch with Ross Stephenson. Ross was about to leave the army and become a dog trainer at a security company, so we started having conversations about co-owning a bed bug detection business. We both had the dog handler training, and I had my pest management qualification. From there we set up CAPE SPC.

A dog’s dinner

Having a working dog is extra responsibility, and you have to understand that before going into it.

Our dogs live with us, they’re with us all the time and need attention – you’ll get larger companies who will put dogs in kennels, but ours live with our handlers 24/7.

Then there’s vet bills, food costs, risk assessments and kitting out all the vans. They need proper ventilation and heating (if necessary), and the kennels inside the vehicles are crash test certified. They need to meet all health and safety requirements and comply with the Animal Welfare Act 2006.

You also need your public liability insurance which covers you for injuries to members of the public by the actions of your own dogs.

I have two terriers, Charlie and Evie, and a retired dog called Archie. He was a mouse detection dog, used to search for nests in warehouses and other properties.

We have Denzel, Snipe and Mylo who are water detection dogs (another side of the business), and two bed bug dogs, Ivor and Tico. They're handled by our guys Ben and Stefan, who have been with us since 2017 and 2018.

Dont always take the same easy jobs make time to do work in other more challenging environments

Woof around the edges

I’ve been asked to train and sell bed bug dogs to other businesses, but a lot of companies don’t understand that training the dog is the easy bit.

You can train a dog to find bed bug scent in two weeks; the dog will always know the scent.

The hardest part is keeping the dog at that high standard.

My concern is when a handler doesn’t have that training experience, and the dog starts doing something that the handler doesn’t know how to fix, then you’re back to square one.

I can train a dog for six months but, unfortunately, an inexperienced handler can break that dog’s training in a week.

A dog isn’t a tool; it doesn’t just work until it’s end. A dog is continuously learning and will learn in different environments and contexts. A dog needs CPD points too!

I believe everyone should know how to train a dog; they pick things up off you, change their behaviours and constantly adapt to what’s happening around them. This can sometimes cause training issues. You need to know what to do when that happens.

If you work with a dog and they get natural finds five days a week, that’s great. But that’s not always the case. You might not find anything for a few weeks, so you still need to keep up the training.

Our staff are all ex-military dog handlers, so the dog side for us is not a concern. We trust our guys to be able to maintain a standard and fix any problems they may come up against.

The tail that wagged the dog

If you’re running a bed bug detection business, you’ll work in very similar environments all the time, like hotel chains with the same room set up.

And when most searches take place in a room that is the same as the previous one, that dog is going to remember and run to where it always finds bed bugs. Then comes that one time in a different environment and the layout is totally different and it can throw the dog off.

That’s why you need to train it in different areas and locations all the time. Don’t always take the same easy jobs; make time to do work in other, more challenging environments so that the dog can keep training.

Often it helps to also have more than one person present during training or, if that’s not possible then video yourself. That way, you will know if there are any mistakes that you’re making which might affect the dog’s training.

When I trained Denzel for bed bugs, I did a lot of the training on my own so I recorded my actions with a video.

I’d have a rack system of around ten pots, with bed bugs in one and distractor scents in the others. We’d use a bit of linen, plastic-like mesh, dead bugs, treats – things that could cause problems for a dog.

You’re training around the distractions; you want the scent of bed bugs to be the reward.

Denzel would search up and down these pots and when I watched the video, I realised had been following him up and down the line and slowing down when he got close to the pot with the bed bugs in.

He heard me slowing down and getting ready to reward him, so he would then walk up to the pots listening for my footsteps. When he heard me slow down, that's when he would start working properly!

If I hadn’t have noticed this it could have become a problem in the live working environment, with Denzel making the association that when I slow down there’s potential for a find, and that's not good. We want our dogs to be working totally independent of us and think for themselves.

Leading the way in a pandemic

With regards to the impact of Covid, we might diversify and look at more general pest control. Hotel work was a lot of our income and that’s dropped massively.

We were still working throughout lockdown in social housing and similar environments. If anything, Covid helped push the case for bed bug dogs in those circumstances.

Yes, technicians can find bed bugs. But if you’re going to do a hotel room or a social housing site with 50 rooms, it’s labour intensive. You’re lifting mattresses, beds and it takes a technician longer than a dog.

If we go into social housing sites during lockdown, the dogs only take a couple of minutes to search, and people don’t have to be out of their homes for so long. And the dogs don’t have to handle people’s belongings as much.

We can then carry out nontoxic treatments on the spot. When we set the company up in 2016 it was something we were pushing from the start.

Paws for thought

We try our hardest to always do nontoxic treatments. Sometimes we’ll use Insect Growth Regulator (IGR) if it’s absolutely crawling.

We use steam or heat too, we’ve also got an infrared heat pod. That’s useful for things like antique furniture and delicate items.

We’ll also use nontoxic spray, which is a micro-encapsulated formula. And then there’s diatomaceous earth. It’s a big thing for us, making sure that the bulk of our treatments are environmentally friendly or nontoxic.

With our clients, we always recommend being proactive. If a customer or guest reports being bitten, the likelihood is that it’s probably a medium to large infestation and that will cost more to eradicate.

With a proactive contract, we’ll carry out the searches and treat any small pop-up infestations for no extra cost. It costs less to make proactive contracts than to eradicate and treat a large infestation.

We saved one social housing company £45,000 in a year and brought the population of bed bugs down in their properties by 78%.

Get on the dog and bone with PPC

We’re always looking for members to chat with about their businesses. If you’ve got something interesting to say, get in touch soon!

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