Canine Nose Knows Bed Bugs

ThisWeek Community Newspapers
Wednesday, November 2, 2011

What do you get when you add together a woman with back problems and another woman worried about her daughter going off to college?

A bedbug-sniffing beagle business.

Didn't see that coming, did you?

Kelly Robbins of the Northland area has been a physical education teacher with Columbus City Schools at the elementary level for the past 17 years, and it was beginning to take a toll in terms of growing back problems.

"I needed something different," she said.

Clintonville resident Annie LaBarrie, a library specialist at the same school where Robbins works, now has two daughters away at college. The first one left home right around the time the current bedbug scare hit the media.

The National Pest Management Association Inc. reported in August that 54 percent of college dorm rooms had been the site of bedbugs, up from 35 percent the year before.

"It just kind of bugged me," LaBarre said. "I thought, 'bedbugs, wow. I though they were eradicated.' The more I looked, the more paranoid I became.

"I started looking at what can you do to protect yourself from bedbugs. I wanted to take that proactive approach."

LaBarre's research led her to a website that discussed training dogs to detect bedbugs.

"Everything has its own distinctive odor," LaBarre said.

A little over a year ago, she sought out her friend Robbins at school one day.

"I think I've found us a second job," LaBarre told her.

When she explained the details, Robbins did not respond, "You're kidding, right?"

"She looked at me and said, 'Oh, my gosh, Annie, I'm in,' " LaBarre recalled.

"My immediate reaction was, 'That's a great idea,' " Robbins said.

The two business partners to be settled on J and K Canine Academy in High Spring, Fla., which was started by former Gainesville Police Department canine handler Jose "Pepe" Peruyero. His business is certified by the National Entomology Scent Detection Canine Association - and who knew that existed?

The two women opted to have a rescue dog trained by Peruyero rather than send one to learn how to sniff out bed bug infestations. In late April, they drove to Florida and picked up Marley, a beagle.

"Beagles kind of lend themselves to this more naturally because they're scent dogs," Robbins said.

Four Paws K-9 Detection LLC was born. It's also certified by the National Entomology Scent Detection Canine Association, which is based in Seminole, Fla.

Marley is trained to sniff out the pheromones of living bedbugs or viable eggs, Robbins said.

"Trained scent-detection dogs are proven to be 98-percent effective in detecting live bedbugs as well as their eggs," according to a brochure for Four Paws. "This is compared to only a 17- to 30-percent accuracy rate by even the most trained exterminators."

"There's a real stigma that's still attached to this little parasite," LaBarre said. "We decided this was a chance for us to further educate the public. This is what we do anyway. This was a way for us to step out of the box and help people."

"No community is immune to bedbugs," according to the website of the Central Ohio Bed Bug Task Force, which was formed in November 2008. "Socio-economic status is not an indicator of one's susceptibility to a bed bug infestation nor is it an indicator if someone is dirty. Anyone can experience an infestation."

"There's a lot of hand-holding that goes along with this, a lot of talking people off the ledge," Robbins said. "Yes, it's a bug, but if we can find it, we can kill it."

And Marley can sure find a bug.

The way she works is, LaBarre or Robbins will lead her on her leash clockwise around a room. If Marley gets a "hit," meaning she smells those bed-bug pheromones, she's trained to tap the place with her paw.

"She's connected to us and her job," LaBarre said. "She's not going to socialize once that leash goes on.

"This is like having a child again. She is scheduled. Every single day we have to work with this dog."

Training involves live bedbugs, supplied by pest-control companies and kept carefully in sealed vials.

"They give it to us for free," Robbins said.

In order to keep the training critters alive, the Four Paws K-9 Detection owners must occasionally open the vial and press it to the inside of their forearms so the bugs can get a little bit of blood.

"They don't have to eat that often," Robbins said.

Marley's services do not come cheaply. According to the Four Paws website, pricing is based on the square footage of homes or business, and the number of rooms to be inspected in the case of the latter.

The base price for a home inspection begins at $200.

"Business is sometimes kind of slow, and then there's an onslaught," Robbins said.

Marley has done her thing in all parts of Columbus as well as several times in Cincinnati, according to Robbins.

Four Paws K-9 Detection serves the entire state and even some surrounding areas, she indicated.

Both women said they find working with Marley and helping people find out if they have a bed bug problem truly fulfilling.

"I don't know what it is that's so enjoyable about it," LaBarre said. "It gives you that peace of mind."

"It has sort of breathed a whole new life into me," Robbins said. "This sort of evolved at the right time."

Robbins has taken a year off from teaching to get Four Paws K-9 Detection going. Marley spends days with her and evenings with LaBarre.