READFIELD — They locate missing people. They find bed bugs. They sniff out bombs or drugs.

For the working canines at Merrill’s Detector Dog Services, it’s a sweet career.

“That is what they live for. That is their favorite thing,” said Sarah Voynik, program manager and daughter of Merrill’s Detector Dogs’ founder, Kathy Heselton. “They smell bed bugs, that’s what they do. ‘This is so much fun! Oh my gosh, I get a ball when I find it!'”

Jo Murch gives a reward of a tennis ball to Bolton after she located a vial of live bed bugs that was hidden in a bookcase at Merrill’s Detector Dog Services in Readfield on Thursday. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Heselton started training Labrador retrievers for hunting and field trials in the 1990s. She was very good at what she did, and the dogs were very good at what they did. She thought they could do more together.

“She eventually got to a point where she wanted to train dogs to do something that mattered,” Voynik said.

With help from a game warden, Heselton began training cadaver dogs. Eventually, she was approached about doing more.

“People were like, ‘Oh, do you do explosive dogs?’ So we were like, ‘Well, no, but we can.’ So we slowly added that and narcotics dogs,” Voynik said. “And then people were like, ‘Oh, dogs can find bed bugs. Can you do that?’ And we were like, ‘Sure! We can do that.’ So we started adding these different specialties.”

Yara, a German shepherd, looks for a narcotics scent that had been hidden in a grill at Merrill’s Detector Dog Services in Readfield on Thursday. Jo Murch, who is handling the dog, approaches from the left. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

All of Merrill’s dogs have a single focus. If they trained as a bed bug detector, for example, they don’t also go out on narcotics calls. Training time depends on the specialty and the dog. Explosives, with their 27 different odors, can take a year to teach. Bed bugs, with their single scent, typically take less time.

Training can be monotonous, requiring dozens of repetitions to make sure a dog’s got it. But it’s one of Voynik’s favorite things to do.

“I like when dogs just get it. You see the light bulb go on,” she said. “You train them to do something and it’s so sloppy when you start, you’re like, ‘I don’t think this dog is ever going to get it.’ And then after a few days they just keep getting better and better, and then the light bulb clicks. Then it’s like game on.”

Merrill’s Detector Dogs has roughly 30 dogs around the country, plus dogs owned by subcontractors. Seven dogs work out of at Merrill’s base of operations in Readfield, sometimes traveling for a job patrolling a sports arena or hunting for bed bugs in a hotel or helping a family figure out whether a loved one is hiding drugs in the house.

The dogs vary by breed, including shepherds and Labrador retrievers. While some look fierce, none bite.

Phiona, a black Lab who has trained to locate explosives, sits at alert, pointing to a gas cap on a vehicle where an explosive pseudo-odor has been hidden at Merrill’s Detector Dog Services in Readfield on Thursday. Trainer Sarah Voynik approaches with a reward. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“They’re super friendly,” Voynik said. “All of our shepherds and Dutch shepherds, even if they look scary, they’re like the biggest goofs. They just lick you.”

Still, Labs are particularly sought after by some clients.

“They’re very nonthreatening and the majority of our clients don’t want threatening-looking dogs,” Voynik said. “We go through crowds a lot and they don’t want to scare people.”

Not that there are many crowds these days.

“It’s been a strange year,” Voynik said. “There are so many variables. We’re just kind of chugging along.”

The dogs love to work, but they can’t do it forever. Voynik owns three of Merrill’s dogs, one of them, black Lab Belle, is 10 years old and retired. Mostly retired.

“They live their whole life . . . working is fun,” she said. “Every time we work a dog, it’s always positive, always fun. They get their toy (as a reward). It’s just a fun thing to do. So we still train with them, it’s just not hard.”

The former drug sniffer now spends her days sleeping on the bed or chasing squirrels.

“They retire and they just live their best lives,” Voynick said.

Animal Tales is a recurring Sun Journal feature about animals and their people. Have an idea for Animal Tales? Call Lindsay Tice at 689-2854 or email her at [email protected].

Belle, a black Lab retired from Merrill’s Detector Dog Services in Readfield, runs off with a tennis ball on Thursday. Trainer Sarah Voynik gives her praise. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo







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