Academy in Safety Harbor trains dogs to find bedbugs

St. Petersburg Times
Friday, April 1, 2011

Jet scurried into the room, eyes wide open and tongue hanging out of his mouth as he panted. The white and brown rat terrier knew it was time to eat - but lunch was not served. He had to earn it.

Obeying his trainer, he calmly walked around a carousel of plastic containers with blue lids. He sniffed a series of small plastic containers one at a time until the scent of one made him quickly sit up, like a soldier being called to attention.

"Show me," said his trainer, Steve Price.

Jet lowered his nose to the lid of the container to show Price that he can quickly sniff out what it usually takes humans hours to find: bedbugs.

"Good boy!" said Price, as he handed him a bite of lunch.

Jet is one of many dogs who are being trained at the Florida Canine Academy, a school in Safety Harbor where dogs are trained to recognize and point to scents ranging from mold to termites to sea turtle eggs.

Lately, though, bedbugs are booming.

"They're here, and they're not going away," said dog trainer Bill Whitstine.

Whitstine owns and operates the academy and has been a figure in dog training for years. A former firefighter, he was the first person in the country to own and train an arson dog, and he has been training dogs for about 20 years.

He said cruise ships and hotels have been making sure their rooms are free of the blood-sucking pests, especially as spring breakers come and go from all over and heighten the chances of hitchhiking bugs coming in.

"As a whole, hotels are being diligent," he said.

Tony McClure, a trainer with the academy, said even visiting sports teams have shown concern for the making sure the bedbugs don't bite.

He recalled when the Rutgers University football team had its coaches and players' hotel rooms searched with bedbug dogs before arriving for a game with the University of South Florida in the fall.

Phil Koehler, a University of Florida urban entomologist, noted that research has shown that dogs enter a hotel room and find bedbugs in minutes, whether they're crawling in the edge of a mattress, hiding behind power outlets or sneaking around in a nightstand drawer.

It could take people hours to tear apart a room. And not only are dogs quick, they're also accurate.

"A properly trained and handled dog can be 98 percent accurate," Koehler said.

He said bedbugs reemerged as a major pest in this country in the late 1990s, when visiting tourists inadvertently brought them in. Combined with shifting pest control practices, bedbugs found a crack to crawl through and establish themselves again.

According to a 2010 survey of U.S. pest management companies conducted by the National Pest Management Association and the University of Kentucky, 95 percent of respondents reported having encountered a bedbug infestation within the previous year. Before 2000, only 25 percent reported dealing with bedbugs.

And hygiene has little to do with it, Koehler said.

"Bedbugs come from bedbugs," he said.

But the elusive critters that resemble crushed red pepper flakes cannot escape the canine's nose. And just about any canine, Koehler says, will do.

Whitstine, who started training bedbug dogs in 2001, said the better tracking dogs are usually hunting breeds like Labrador retrievers, Jack Russell terriers and beagles, but the academy rescues all kinds of mutts from animal shelters in several surrounding counties.

A dog could require anywhere from three to six months of training, depending on the personality and background of the dog. A trained bedbug dog and training for the handler costs about $8,700.

Florida Canine Academy has graduates across the country and abroad in countries like Canada and Japan.

Price talks about dogs in terms of putting them to "work," but he knows that to them it's all play.

"To them, it's a game."