Dogs have widely been used for their keen sense of smell to detect a variety of substances from drugs to mold. Specific species of canines can contain over three hundred million receptors in their noses compared to about thirty million for humans. This helps them to track scents through rain, mud, and snow while distinguishing between the slightest of differences.
Recently, several facilities have been training dogs to sniff out live bed bugs in residential communities, hotel rooms, and other types of buildings. This has become a highly lucrative business for pest exterminators and dog trainers alike due to the rising incidents serious infestations.
Using Specially Trained Dogs
While some individuals in the pest control industry are skeptical about the use of dogs for detection, these specially trained canines are boast a 97% accurate in finding live infestations. This is compared to only the 30% accuracy of humans with visual detection.
These bloodsucking insects go through five stages of development, and in most of these phases, they are no larger than the size of a sesame seed. The eggs and nymphs are off-white to yellowish, which makes them hard to see on light colored bed sheets and carpets. The adults are no longer than a quarter of an inch and are excellent at hiding.
All of these aspects camouflage the insect from being detected visually, which is why more companies are relying on the keen sense of smell that dogs possess to find these blood-sucking creatures.
Rising Demand for Canine Services
While it can take hours for a human to search through an entire room, tearing apart furniture and ripping out floor boards to visually locate these offending bugs, dogs can smell the presence of live infestations in a given area within minutes.
The industry of detection has experienced a recent expansion within the last decade, which is largely due to the increase in reported infestations. Between 2000 and 2005, the number of reported incidents has increased exponentially.
This number continues to rise in heavily populated cities, such as New York City, due to the insect’s developed resistances to certain pesticides.
After World War II, they were mostly eradicated by use of the now-banned pesticide, DDT. With the increased global traffic, they are making their comeback, costing residents thousands of dollars in fumigations and other pest control methods.
Residents and lodging businesses can try to limit these problems through the use of fully trained and certified dogs for expedited discovery.
Who are These Dogs and How Are They Selected?
There are several training facilities across the United States, most of which are located in Florida, which raise and train dogs to detect their presence. A large majority of the dogs used are rescued from local shelters, which keeps procurement costs low for the facilities while helping out less fortunate animals.
The dogs are chosen based on their breed and level of energy. The best candidates will be highly energetic and contain biological traits that improve their sense of smell.
Which Breeds are the Best?
Hunting breeds, such as Blood Hounds and Beagles, are popular to use because they have been bred for centuries to seek out prey and fetch the carcasses for their handlers. Other breeds used include Border Collies, Jack Russell Terriers, Labradors, and Aussies.
Typically, smaller breeds are preferred because they are less intimidating to residents who have aversions to dogs. Also, small dogs can be lifted by their handlers to search high shelves and drawers in suspected residences.
The most desirable dogs for the job will have a high desire to please their handlers. The training and job duties involved are fun and enjoyable for the dog. It helps if the animal receives additional pleasure from the handler through praise and treats.
Caring for the dog is relatively inexpensive for its trainer since the hourly charge for the service completely covers these costs with sizable profits. While the rewards may be great, the career of a bug dog trainer takes dedication and full commitment on the part of the handler.
Training the Canine
The typical age for a dog to start training is between eight and twelve months, but some are older when they are rescued from a shelter. It takes between 800 and 1,000 hours of training for a dog to become eligible for certification. Most of these training hours are spent at a specialized facility where there are mock hotel rooms set up with realistic staging providing natural hiding places for these insects.
Training begins with basic obedience where the dog and handler learn to work with each other. The dog must learn commands such as sit and stay while the handler learns the best methods for teaching the dog.
Assessing the Dog’s Behavior
During this phase, the temperament of the dog will be assessed to ensure that there is no aggressive behavior or other tendencies that could interfere with the duties. Timid or aggressive dogs make bad candidates for this field because their behavior can be unpredictable when entering new locations and socializing with clients.
With rescued animals, there is always the risk of traumatic experiences in the past that could affect the dog’s behavior. In some cases, these can be trained out of or minimized for the dog, but for serious conditions, the animal will have to be adopted out as a pet.
The dog must also have a solid work ethic to prevent it from getting distracted while on the job. There is just as much training involved for the dog as there is for the handler. Both parties must be a good match for each other in order for more complex training to be completed.
Learning to Sniff Out the Bugs
The next step in the training process involves odor identification. While dogs can be trained to detect a number of different sources, most training facilities recommend single focus identification to avoid the chance that the dog will indicate a location of mold when it is supposed to be searching for insects.
Specialization of labor is just as important for dogs as it is for humans in other industries. The dog will be exposed to bed bugs in their different stages in order for the animal to be able to learn the varying scents of these insects. It is also important to teach the dog scent discrimination for it to be able to distinguish between live and dead ones.
The trainer sets up a multitude of canisters with each containing a different substance. These substances vary from live to shell casings. The trainer may also include dog treats and other scents that the dog will recognize.
The dog is then directed to each of the containers and must indicate which one holds the live bugs. If training is successful, the dog will sit in front of the canister that contains the live insects. The trainer will reward the dog with a treat for selecting the correct one.
It is highly important for the dog to be able to distinguish between live bugs and dead cells, such as their egg casings and shed skins. While on the job, a handler does not want the dog identifying past infestations that are no longer a threat to the owner or resident. A false positive could lead to unnecessary expenses of fumigation and other treatments.
Common Hiding Spots
Search patterns are also taught to the dog to ensure thorough and efficient inspections of a building. These insects get their name from their tendency to hide within mattresses where their victims sleep, but they will often seek out other hiding spots where they will not be disturbed: behind headboards, within closets, and underneath carpeting.
In the facilities’ mock hotel rooms, trainers will hide live bugs for the dog to find in a simulated environment. The dogs in training will develop search patterns and learn to detect odors through walls and behind electrical sockets where they can easily hide.
Just like in the random container training, the dog will sit to indicate that it has found a live infestation. Also, since many jobs will require the searching of an entire home or building, the dog must be able to search each room in order to indicate all locations of live bugs.
Pointing Out the Target
There has been ongoing debate about the best way to train a dog to indicate that it has found its target. Originally, dogs were trained to paw at the infested area, but some exterminators argue that this could cause damage to furniture and possibly spread the bugs to other locations.
With the sitting technique, the results could be a little vague if the dog sits in front of a large piece of furniture, like a couch or bed.
More commonly, dogs are trained to point with their noses to pinpoint the exact location of the found insects.
Familiarizing the Dog with Other Environments
Socialization and exposing the dog to various types of buildings are also important aspects of the training process. Since most domesticated dogs spend a predominant amount of time in their owners’ homes, it is important to train these dogs to be comfortable in different environments.
The canine teams are commonly hired by residential property, hotel, and college dorm owners. The dogs need to be exposed to these different areas ahead of time to ensure they will be able to work efficiently on the job. These dogs are also trained to be comfortable with frequent vehicle rides when traveling from one job site to another.
Becoming a Specialized Dog Handler
The training for a handler is an in-depth process where he or she is taught how to train the dog and the proper care techniques for the animal. Handlers need to be trained in proper dog care, such as nutrition needs and feeding schedules, as well as grooming habits.
Training facilities offer canine first aid classes where they teach valuable skills like canine CPR and other emergency techniques. Trained handlers need to know the exact command words to give the dog during training and on the job. Some common phrases include “seek,” “show me,” and “find the bugs.”
Buy Training Bugs
In order for training to be effective, the trainers must purchase insects for scent detection purposes. On the market, these bugs sell for $3.00 per adult. In order to keep the insects alive, they must be fed on a monthly basis. Dedicated trainers will allow the these insects to feed off of their own blood once a month since these parasites prefer human blood.
These bugs are kept in mesh-covered containers to lock in their scent when the dog is not training. The trainer can use the fecal matter, shed skin cells, and egg casings to help the dog learn scent discrimination.
It is also important to use various stages of the bugs for the dog to identify live infestations. The canine will be expected to identify eggs, nymphs, and adults.
Tender Loving Care
Since dogs are social animals, the handler will also need to dedicate their lives to caring for these working dogs. Training and working are important aspects of raising a service dog, but the handlers also need to set aside time each day to play with the animal and provide it with love and affection.
In any industry that uses dogs for job purposes, the dogs who get the relaxation and affection they require are harder workers who are dedicated to obeying and pleasing their handlers.
Scent Detection Certification
After the training process is completed, dogs must be officially certified by the National Entomology Scent Detection Canine Association, or NESDCA. This organization, founded by pest control owners and operators, is dedicated to providing the highest quality scent detection methods for canine training teams. NESDCA also performs valuable research in the departments of entomology and canine training.
The handler and K-9 must pass the certification requirement together as a team in order to become fully certified. If one handler passes the dog on to a different handler, the certification process must be completed again for the new team. A single dog cannot be legally certified without a handler, and vice versa.
There are other qualifications for eligibility including maintaining a good standing with NESDCA, completion of training for the dog and handler, and having no previous membership revoked for any reason. Dogs must also be single-focused scent detectors in order to qualify for certification with NESDCA.
The Testing Process
The dog and handler will go through a series of tests that will be evaluated by accredited judges of NESDCA. The handler is not allowed to overcorrect the dog during these tests as this will be used as grounds for failure.
There are always two evaluators, and one acts as the chief evaluator. This chief evaluator is not allowed to have previous training experience with the team being tested. If there is a dispute between the two evaluators of whether to pass or fail the team, the chief’s ruling will be accepted.
The K-9 is evaluated on how well it detects the presence of the bugs and discriminates between scents while the handler is evaluated on his or her ability to control, command, and work with the dog.
Once a team successfully passes the testing and evaluation, their certification will be valid for a full year. The team is only certified for the specific scent for which it was tested. For example, if a K-9 team was certified for bed bug detection, that handler and dog are not qualified to work for termite or other types of scent detection affiliations.
In the event that a team fails the certification test, the dog and handler must wait a minimum of fifteen days for another evaluation. NESDCA offers quarterly testing and annual recertification for all entomological scent detection teams.
Standards for NESDCA Certification
There are certain standards that NESDCA must uphold throughout their testing procedures for valid certification. The building structures that are approved for testing sites include residential dwellings, warehouses, office buildings, hotels, motels, and schools.
When hiding the bugs for the tests, they cannot be visually apparent to the dog or handler. Two distracters will be used at the test site, but they will not be placed in the same rooms as the live infestations.
The evaluators will place two live sources at the site in different rooms and two distracters, which consist of dead bugs or non-living cells. The canine is allowed one false alert, but altering to one of the distracters will result in automatic failure.
Passing the Test
In order to pass the test, the dog must alert at the source of the live insects. This means that the K-9 has to make some kind of motion toward the source of the scent, such as pawing or pointing with its nose, and must be obvious to the evaluators.
During the process of testing, the handler has the option of using collars, leashes, or harnesses, but these are not required. Evaluators will follow the team around the location to observe how the handler and K-9 work together. The handler is allowed to encourage the dog through commands and praise, but overcorrection will result in a failed test.
The team is given a time limit of twenty minutes to search the entire building, and time limits may be adjusted for each room depending on the size. If the evaluators determine that the dog is not working during the first test, the team will be given a thirty minute reprieve before trying the test a second time.
If the dog continues to disregard its task, it will result in a failed score. All tests are evaluated on a pass/fail basis.
Humane Training Methods Must Be Used
Since the safety of the dogs is the number-one priority of NESDCA, the use of whips, shock collars, sticks, pinch collars, and ultrasonic devices are strictly prohibited during evaluations. It is the responsibility of the handler to ensure the safety and protection of his or her dog, and any harsh treatment will result in an automatic failure of certification.
Proper training techniques and humane methods for reprimand should have been taught to the handler who is required to adhere by these standards. The proper care and treatment of animals is highly important in any situation, especially when dealing with service dogs.
Selling a Certified Dog
Once a team is officially certified by NESDCA, the handler and dog are free to work for pest control organizations or accept freelance contracts. Some trainers earn their living by training these dogs and selling them to individuals or companies.
A fully trained scent trained dog typically sells for between $8,000 and $15,000. The amount depends on the animal’s level of experience, age, and pedigree. Dogs will usually be able to work for about eight or nine years before they are retired and become full-time pets.
The cost of a trained dog also comes with one week of handler training. Within that week, the handler will learn how to work with that canine, including the specific commands to use and how to care for the animal.
Most canine training facilities will only sell to individuals or organizations that have previous experience with bug dogs due to the demanding requirements of care for these working animals.
It is important to remember that if the handler of a certified team sells the dog to another handler, the canine does not maintain its certification and must be recertified with its new owner as a separate team.
The Hunt: What Happens on the Job?
When a team of scent detectors is hired to search a facility for the presence of bugs, the dog and handler will go through the process just like they did during training. They will usually be accompanied by a professional exterminator for visual verification and advice on how to precede once an infestation is confirmed.
The handler will first choose a location to begin the search, which is typically the front door, and will lead the dog around the building until the canine alerts to a scent.
Once the canine has found its target, the handler will reward him or her with a treat while the exterminator visually confirms an infestation. The dog’s job is not complete until it has finished searching the entire building and located all live hot spots.
Leave No Corner Unsearched
The K-9 team will use methodical search patterns to avoid missing any infestations as learned during the training process. In the field, dogs have been very successful at locating live eggs and nymphs that would have been nearly impossible to detect through visual searches.
If the dog alerts to a scent behind a wall, it is sometimes necessary for the exterminator to break through the plaster or floor boards for visual confirmation. Residents usually do not mind this procedure because they are more concerned about pinpointing the exact locations of infestations to get rid of them completely.
Because of the dog’s ability to search entire rooms within minutes, the team can schedule several inspections in a day while maintaining thorough results.
Are Canine Services Cost-effective?
Since many residents and business owners spend thousands of dollars on infestation removal, there are concerns that the use of scent detection dogs is just another added expense.
In fact, the use of dogs can save an individual or company several thousands of dollars on unnecessarily fumigating rooms that are not infested. There have been several cases where a resident was convinced there were bugs, but the detection found no traces of live infestations.
Cost versus Savings
The hourly rate for bug dogs is about $325, which can help residents and owners avoid unnecessary fumigations that can cost around $5,000 in treatment.
Trained and certified dogs will be able to search an entire hotel and pinpoint which rooms contain live infestations. This service can save the hotel manager inordinate amounts of money by only treating the infected rooms instead of the entire hotel.
The same is true for large office buildings, college dorms, and schools that have several rooms where these insects could be hiding. The efficiency of these dogs is also much higher than that of humans. Where it would take dogs minutes to search each room, the same search area would take an exterminator hours or possibly days.
Since dogs rely on their scent rather than their vision, their rate of detection is also greatly increased. Dogs can smell whether or not live bugs are hiding in the walls, whereas humans would have to take things apart and visually identify the existence of these creatures.
Why These Bugs Are Considered One of the Greatest Nuisances
When dealing with the problems caused by these insects, it is important to have basic knowledge about how they travel and their general habits as insects. Since they can easily travel through walls, they are a greater threat to residential facilities that contain multiple units, such as apartment buildings and condominiums.
Their preferred meal is human blood, but they will feed off of other mammals, like cats and dogs, in times of need. If one unit or room in a building has an infestation, the insects can easily infest nearby units, causing an even greater threat.
They Know How to Hide
Most residents pick up bugs when traveling and staying in hotel rooms or bed and breakfast lodgings. These insects can get onto clothing, which is brought back to the person’s home in suitcases.
Even though the cleaning staff will change the bedding on a regular basis, they like to hide in undisturbed areas. Their survival is based on their ability to hide, so they are quite adept at finding places where they will be undetectable to the human eye.
They Can Infest a Home with Ease
Once they are introduced into a new home, they will quickly take up residency and cause new infestations. These nocturnal creatures spend their days hiding in undisturbed areas. Some infestations take months to be noticed, especially when the occupants do not react to the bites.
Locations where dogs have found live infestations include mattresses, baby cribs, cluttered closets, and underneath carpets. These inconspicuous insects require the scent detection of canines for accurate identification that leads to their eradication.
They Can Be Hard to Detect with the Human Eye
Through their five stages of development, these bugs are difficult to spot visually. The eggs are very light in color and contain a thick, liquid coating that hardens when it dries, causing them to stick to fabrics and other materials. A forceful sweep of the hand or a household vacuum will not dislodge these eggs from their resting spots.
When they advance to the nymph stages, they retain their light coloring. They remain at a small size to go unnoticed until their adult stage.
Adults become a rust color after they have fed on human blood and grow to a larger size, no more than a quarter of an inch. If an adult has not fed after a long duration, they return to the lighter, white or yellow color. With regular meals, they shed their skin and go back to the lighter color for a short time.
Their Bites Cause Different Reactions
While they are difficult to see with the human eye, they are also difficult to identify by the bites they leave behind. Most people react differently, so even trained dermatologists have difficulties identifying bites caused by these insects.
Within the same household, one person may develop welts while another resident’s bites resemble that of a mosquito. Other individuals do not react at all, making it even more difficult to discover an infestation. Luckily, most experts agree that they do not transmit diseases, but their mere presence is a nuisance that residents do not want to put up with.
They Don’t Care How Clean Your Home Is
Unlike a messy home attracting ants or roaches, the cleanliness of a home or hotel room does not affect the chances of these nasty insects from moving in. They are attracted to carbon dioxide that humans emit when they breathe as well as the warmth of their bodies. These pests are just as likely to infest an immaculate home as a dirty shanty as long as there are regular occupants.
How to Prevent an Invasion
While keeping a home clean and spotless does not guarantee they will stay out, there are some preventative measures that homeowners and renters can take.
Since the most likely origin of infestations is from hotel rooms, travelers are advised to wash their clothing with hot, soapy water after returning home. All fabrics should be washed regardless of whether or not the clothing was worn while away from home. Experts advise that this process be done immediately upon return.
If the infested clothing sits in a room for too long, these insects will travel to new hiding spots where it will be more difficult to get rid of them.
Avoid Infested Locations
If it becomes known that a close friend or relative has an infestation, it is wise to stay away from their home until the problem is resolved. These insects are not known to jump from person to person like fleas, so there is no risk in visiting the friend at a neutral location.
If a student returns home from an infested college dorm room, he or she should wash all of their belongings in hot water to kill any insects that have traveled back with the clothing or bedding.
Apartments and Dorms
Prevention becomes more difficult in apartment building settings where the insects can easily travel through the walls to adjacent units. Once an infestation is discovered, the responsible course to take would be to notify the landlord who can advise nearby residents to watch out for infestations.
The landlord will also be responsible for getting rid of the infestation under most lease agreements. This presents a great opportunity for certified dogs to perform their duties and prevent infestations from spreading.
Rather than temporarily evicting all tenants for a massive fumigation project, the working dog can identify all sources of live bugs for more effective eradication. Similarly, hotel managers and dorm room RAs should be notified at the first sign of these offending bugs.
Even with the assistance of scent detection dogs, these bugs have become harder to exterminate than in previous decades. The heavy use of DDT in the past has caused them to develop pesticide resistance.
To avoid the expenses of professional treatment, some residents try home remedies. Electronic or ultrasonic pest control devices are popularly used by residents to try to solve their dilemmas, but these have been proven ineffective against such resistant insects.
The most effective home remedy for ridding an area is the use of carbon dioxide traps that contain dry ice. The carbon dioxide attracts the insects that then freeze to death when coming in contact with the dry ice.
Advice for Contracting a Professional Exterminator
When utilizing the services of trained professionals, residents are urged to find companies that use the term “integrated pest management.” This phrase indicates that the exterminators use environmentally safe techniques that do not include banned pesticides or products that are harmful to children and animals.
Professional exterminators will use fumigation techniques, heat, or in rare cases, industrial, high-powered vacuums. Because of the bugs’ resistances to certain pesticides, pumping heat into an infested area is currently the most effective means of eradication.
If a single female survives through fumigation treatments, she can completely repopulate the infestation with her eggs, causing the problem to start all over again. Studies have shown that they cannot survive temperatures at or above 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
After the dogs have positively identified all locations of live insects, professionals will pump heat of 130° degrees into the infested areas to ensure the death of all living bugs in any stage of development. After infestation treatment, the resident or building owner can choose to have the dog return for another inspection to ensure that there are no more living insects within the premises.
Dogs = Relief!
These scent-trained bug dogs are in high demand all across the United States and in other countries around the world. In populated cities with multi-unit dwellings, a single canine may visit a dozen locations in one day of work.
These specialized K-9 units bring relief to residents who were convinced they had an infestation while saving clients thousands of dollars in costly treatment methods. Trainers and handlers agree that it is a rewarding career, and the dogs are happy with the treats and love they receive for a job well done.
While building owners are relieved to know the exact locations of infestations, it is considered a happy ending when the dedicated canine finds zero traces of live bed bugs.