Wednesday, November 2, 2011
When I was young, my mother used to recite the ditty “Good night. Sleep tight. Don't let the bed bugs bite” as part of our bedtime ritual. Now, I didn’t actually know what a bed bug was, in fact I didn’t even know such a bug even existed, but the saying always made me giggle. Bed bugs were mostly a legend back then, as the pests were largely eradicated in the U.S. by pesticides like DDT. Bed bugs remained a problem overseas, however, and travelers unknowingly brought them back to the states. As a result, bed bug cases have surged in recent years, so much so that some say we’re experiencing a “bed bug epidemic.” Pest control companies now have a new weapon to wage war on these biting bedfellows: dogs! That’s right – dogs are being trained to use their incredible olfactory ability to pinpoint where the nibbling critters and their eggs are hiding in homes, hotels and businesses.
Can Dogs Really Sniff Out These Microscopic Pests?
Of course they can! Detection dogs have become highly proficient at finding bombs, drugs, people, weapons and even certain types of cancer. Bed bug “detective work” is just another way we can use their exceptional sense of smell to benefit mankind. Not only that, but dogs can locate these pests quicker and more efficiently than humans can, thanks to a nose that some call “cutting edge technology.”
A dog’s sense of smell is said to be more than 1,000 times more sensitive than ours. In fact, a dog's sense of smell is so acute it can even detect odors that scientific instruments can’t. Train the canines to sniff out bed bugs, and these pests don’t stand a chance!
Why Bed Bug Detection Dogs Trump Humans
The feeble human nose is unable to detect the smell of bed bugs, and must rely on a visual inspection. However, because the critters are so small – newly hatched bed bugs are about the size of a pen tip – finding physical evidence can be like looking for that proverbial needle in a haystack. It can take a mere mortal several hours or more to conduct a visual inspection, whereas a well trained bed bug detection dog can sweep a room in minutes. Moreover, pinpointing the exact location of bed bugs in a home or business reduces both the amount of chemicals used and the treatment costs.
If the dog detects even the tiniest trace of bed bugs in their favorite hiding spots – mattresses, box springs, baseboards, carpeting, floorboards and electrical outlets – they’re trained to alert their handler by either sitting down, barking, or pawing at the area. Dogs can be trained to detect both live and dead bed bugs, as well as cast skins, eggs and excrement.
Bed bugs can crawl through walls and along wiring and pipes, and hitchhike on clothes, luggage and furniture. In large cities like New York, where apartment dwelling is the norm, this means one person’s bedbug infestation is everybody’s problem. Many hotels, apartments and other commercial establishments take a proactive approach by conducting periodic bed bug inspections instead of waiting for complaints. Bed bug sniffing dogs can also be brought in after pest control treatment to give the “all clear.”
A 2008 clinical trial by entomology researchers at the University of Florida revealed that well-trained dogs can detect a single live bed bug or egg with 95 to 98 percent accuracy. Their findings, however, don’t necessarily reflect the success rate of individual companies’ dogs, operating in the real world rather than the controlled conditions of a research study. Still, given the advantages detection dogs have over human inspectors, many see them as a viable way to deal with a bed bug problem.
Which Breeds Make the Best Bed Bug Detection Dogs?
According to the American Kennel Club, breeds that are commonly used in bed bug detection include Beagles, Labrador Retrievers and Belgian Malinois. However, as with any scent detection work, there really is no “best” breed. Some say it’s less about the breed and more about a particular dog’s personality and desire to be trained and to do the work.
One noteworthy dog, an adorable beagle named Roscoe, was rescued from the pound and trained to be a bed bug detection dog. Since then, Roscoe’s become something of a national celebridog. He’s appeared in television documentaries and on Animal Planet’s Monsters Inside Me series, and has a smart phone app that teaches people how to inspect a hotel room and prevent exposure to bed bugs. Roscoe has his own Facebook page and is also the subject of a videogame for the iPhone called “Roscoe the Bed Bug Dog” where players have to seek out hidden bed bugs and freeze them (Ewww! I love videogames with animals, but I’ll pass on this one).
I hope to high heaven I never have a bed bug problem. But if I do, who am I gonna call? The dogs, of course!
Read more articles by Julia Williams