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
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
"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
Lately, though, bedbugs are booming.
"They're here, and they're not going away," said dog trainer
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
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
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
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,"
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
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
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."