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A dogged pursuit of bed bugs

There's high demand for dogs trained to track down the tiny, bloodsucking parasites that have invaded cities in the last four years.

October 21, 2009|Bob Drogin

ASBURY PARK, N.J. — Sara pulled on her leash, sniffing up one side of a cluttered bedroom and snuffling down the other. The black Labrador retriever suddenly sat beside an armchair.

Rich Wilbert, her handler, flipped the chair over and poked at the stuffing and seams. He spotted pin-sized drops of human blood -- clear signs of an infestation of bedbugs in the small apartment.

"Good girl, Sara," Wilbert said. He fed her a few treats from a bag as a co-worker made a note to treat the room with insecticide. Sara went back to searching for Cimex lectularius, as she does six days a week.

A working dog's life is not easy. Some canines gain glory by sniffing out bombs, drugs or land mines, but most do less glamorous labor. Beagles hunt home-munching termites, terriers track toxic fumes from Chinese drywall and collies chase Canada geese off golf courses.

Bedbugs are the latest dirty job. Largely eradicated in the United States after World War II, the tiny, bloodsucking parasites have invaded city after city in the last four years, leaving painful skin welts and pricey pest control bills from Boston to San Francisco.

One result: Many pest control companies -- especially those that use bedbug detection dogs -- are riding high despite the economic recession.

They typically charge $500 to $1,000 to treat a small apartment or office. That buys a trained dog to detect the reddish-brown vermin, heavy applications of sprayed steam and chemicals to kill the insects and their eggs, and a follow-up visit with the dog to make certain the nasty nocturnal varmints are really gone.

Bedbugs hide during the day in wall cracks, behind light switches or in other dark places. But the dogs sniff along baseboards, beds and furniture for the pheromones, the faint chemical odor that the insects emit to signal one another, and then alert the handler of an enemy invasion.

At Action Termite and Pest Control, based in Toms River, N.J., General Manager John Russell said his business had grown 30% this year thanks to Sara, Rex and Cassie, his dogs. He is adding to his 46-member staff and planning to buy a fourth dog.

"The phone has been ringing off the hook," he said. "We used to get maybe one or two calls a year. Now we get 10 to 15 a day."

Among the recent jobs: an $80,000 contract to eradicate bedbugs from four apartment blocks owned by the Atlantic City Housing Authority. His dogs also sniffed their way through two office towers in mid-Manhattan and a luxury hotel in Philadelphia.

Two trainers provide most of the dogs used around the country. The men have become fierce rivals in the process.

Bill Whitstine, who heads the Florida Canine Academy in Safety Harbor, Fla., said he "invented" bedbug dogs about five years ago. He already trained and sold pooches that could sniff out termites, carpenter ants and mold. He even trained dogs to help state environmental officials find endangered snakes and sea turtle eggs.

"I'm known for thinking outside the box," he said.

His bedbug dogs soon eclipsed his other offerings. Whitstine charges $8,700 for a package deal -- two months' training for the dog and one week for the handler. He has sold about 100 animals, he said.

"There's a high demand," he said. "These are my most popular dogs."

His chief competitor, Pepe Peruyero, heads J&K Canine Academy in High Springs, Fla. He said he had sold about 70 dogs for $9,500 each.

He trains them for four months and teaches them to detect only live bugs. That way, the handler knows an infestation has not moved elsewhere.

"We are the only trainer that does that," Peruyero said.

In New York, infestations were reported recently in a United Nations building, former President Clinton's offices, the Penguin Books office, classrooms at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and elsewhere. Handlers used dogs at the U.N. and several other sites to help pinpoint the bugs for fumigators.

"It can be a very valuable tool," said Richard Cooper, coauthor of the 266-page "Bed Bug Handbook" and a member of New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's new Bed Bug Advisory Board. "You can work your way through a hotel or a college dorm or a movie theater much more quickly with dogs than just relying on a visual inspection."

But Gary Alpert, an entomologist at Harvard University who specializes in bedbugs, cautions that some pest control companies use dogs as a gimmick to exploit people's fears and to charge more money.

"There are a lot of scams out there," he said.

Because dogs are given a reward if they "alert" for a bedbug, for example, they may alert just to get the food. An unscrupulous or inexperienced handler could easily use the false alarms to charge for unnecessary treatments.

"You can waste a lot of money very quickly," Alpert said. "Some handlers have no idea what a bedbug looks like."

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