First came the bedbugs. Then the bedbug-sniffing dogs. Now the
pest industry is offering certification to companies that want to
make sure their dogs and handlers really can sniff out the
In most cases, bedbugs don't emit an odor that the human nose
can detect, according to David Latimer, whose family runs a canine
scent detection business called Forensic and Scientific
Investigations in Alabama. But the smell, described by some
entomologists as sweet and sickly, is something dogs can be taught
to sniff out, much the same way they can be trained to detect
explosives and narcotics.
And because bedbugs are often difficult to find - they range
from 1 to 7 millimeters in length - demand for bedbug-sniffing dogs
The increase "has been the most dramatic of any canine scent
detection since bomb dogs after 9/11," said Latimer, who is also
the police chief and fire chief of Harpersville, Ala., population
In the past 12 months, his company has trained about 40 dogs,
just for bedbugs. By comparison, about half a dozen dogs were
trained to detect explosives, and an additional eight to 10 to look
It takes about three months, and with a good handler and under
excellent clinical conditions the dogs can be "very, very
proficient" in finding bedbugs, Latimer said.
His company relies on rescue dogs of mixed breeds, many of them
beagles and terriers. Personality is more important than
"Most of the dogs we adopt would not make very good pets,"
Latimer said. "Periodically, someone calls us up and says their dog
is nuts, that it can't seem to contain itself. It's like the dog
needs a dose of ritalin when really all it needs is a job."
At a three-day conference in Philadelphia starting June 1, the
National Pest Management Association and several scent detection
companies will be providing certification to teams of handlers and
dogs, and training for handlers. To get certified, the dog and
handler have to demonstrate they can find mesh-covered vials of
five to 20 bedbugs hidden in hotel guest rooms.
"Some of the rooms will have them and the teams will have to
find which ones have them" to pass certification, said Missy
Henriksen, vice president of public affairs for the the pest
About 250 people have signed up to attend the conference, she
said, which will feature sessions on how best to work with scent
detection dogs, including how to keep them from picking up bad
habits such as alerting to odors other than the true target.
"You want to make sure they're taught what to look for, and if
they find a missing pb-and-j sandwich under a couch cushion that
they're not going to be rewarded," Henriksen said.
The recent nationwide resurgence in bedbugs has led an
increasing number of pest control companies to use specially
trained dogs to help locate the bugs and their eggs, she said.
Trained dogs cost between $10,000 and $12,000, she said, and some
companies have used dogs that were not sufficiently trained.
In a study conducted by the pest association and the University
of Kentucky last year, 95 percent of the 1,000 participating
pest-management companies said that they had encountered an
infestation in the past year, up from 25 percent a decade ago. The
experts reported the highest incidences in private residences,
followed by hotels and motels, college dorms, various modes of
transportation, laundry facilities and movie theaters.
Experts suspect that the resurgence is related to resistance to
available pesticides, greater mobility and travel, and lack of
knowledge about pests that were virtually eradicated in the 1940s
They can live for months without a meal, hidden deep in mattress
seams, baseboard cracks, and in clutter around beds. They travel
easily, hitchhiking from person to person, city to city.
Experts recommend sealing mattresses and box springs in clear
plastic coverings, and
in hotel roomscarefully inspecting the wall behind the
headboard for telltale signs of infestation: black specks (fecal
matter), molten sheddings (like pencil shavings) or the bugs
themselves (in their various stages of life).