Bed bug sniffing dogs: what you need to know

by nobugsonme on March 10, 2010 · 10 comments

in bed bug detection, bed bug k9s, bed bugs, canine scent detection

If you surfed in from the story in Thursday’s New York Times about bed bug sniffing dogs, then welcome!

I exchanged some emails with Penelope Green when she was writing the story, and I think she did a good job overall.  I figured this was a good time to add a FAQ to our repertoire about bed bug sniffing dogs and what you need to know if you’re thinking of hiring one.

(My comments below are about bed bug sniffing dog teams generally, and are not specifically in reference to the firm or dog team referenced in the article.)

The most important thing for customers to know is that bed bug sniffing dog alerts need to  be visually verified — by this, I mean the dog handler looks carefully in the vicinity where the dog alerted, to find evidence of bed bugs.

As I said to Penelope Green in an email last week,

Dogs that are trained [well] can be effective in sniffing out bed bugs.  However, it’s important that when a dog alerts to bed bugs, its handler follows up by visually confirming the presence of bed bugs.  Without a visual confirmation, the customer has no way of knowing if this is a false alert, and false alerts do happen.

False alerts have led to customers spending thousands of dollars on treatments.    And in one case, a user of our forums received differing results from one bed bug sniffing dog after another (at hundreds of dollars a pop), as she tried to determine whether she had bed bugs or not.

A visual confirmation is the only way to be sure you did not receive a false alert.  This is not just my own personal opinion. It’s the opinion of others who know a lot more about this topic than I do.

One of these is Dr. Michael Potter of the University of Kentucky, one of the foremost bed bug experts on in the world. Dr. Potter concurs that bed bug sniffing k9s can be very effective, and as he says, he’s followed at least five teams closely while they were at work.

Dr. Potter says a good bed bug canine team can be especially helpful in situations like movie theaters, where a large amount of space must be searched. But Dr. Potter feels dog alerts should be visually confirmed with a careful search.

Watch him in this brief video from the fall 2009 New York Pest Expo (Bed Bug Edition), where in reference to this problem of bed bug sniffing dogs alerting (without alerts being visually confirmed), Dr. Potter describes a dog handler who marks each spot where the dog “signs” and does not visually inspect these.

In response, Potter exhorts handlers to “Show me the bugs!”

(More footage from the NY Pest Expo here.)

So, if you’re considering hiring a dog team it is especially important to talk to the handlers about whether they visually confirm bed bug alerts.  If they say this is impossible or unnecessary, remember that there are other handlers will do this, and it will give you peace of mind.  As Dr. Potter says in the video above, it is not always possible to find a bed bug (e.g. one hidden inside a box spring or sofa).  However, in many cases it is possible.

If a company tells you their dog is 100% effective, be vary wary. No dog (or human) is 100% effective in detecting bed bugs, and some are much less so.

If you hire a bed bug sniffing k9, here are some other things which would be helpful to ask in advance of hiring a team  I am paraphrasing the recommendations of a handler in our forums who goes by the username LVK9 (a Las Vegas bed bug k9 handler):

  1. What is included in the inspection?
  2. Do handlers mark areas where the dog alerts?
  3. Do handlers visually confirm alerts?
  4. What type of documentation is left with the customer?
  5. How much time is included in the visit?
  6. If the k9 inspection company is also a pest control firm, can you use the pest control firm of your choice for any necessary treatment?
  7. If you choose to use a different firm for treatment, does the price of the k9 inspection change?

Other handlers suggested you may also choose to ask what the charge would be for a follow-up inspection after treatment.

One thing consumers should be aware of is that there are warring camps in the bed bug k9 industry.  One of the places the war has played out is on our forums, among handlers from different schools of thought; if you want to ask questions of those in the industry about differing approaches to dog training, certification, or protocols, this forum thread is one place to do so.

Except for this June, 2009 article from the Atlantic, the news media does not tend to mention that there are various schools of thought about bed bug sniffing dogs; instead, articles typically refer to only one team or one trainer’s dogs and protocol.  As the Atlantic story clarifies, methods and protocols can vary a great deal.

Handlers with dogs from one trainer or another, or whose bed bug sniffing dog is certified by NESDCA, or not certified by NESDCA, are often adamant that what they have is what you need.   So let me cut through some of the politics for you:

  1. There are a number of companies which appear to effectively train bed bug sniffing dogs (including J&K Canine, who trained the dog mentioned in today’s NY Times article, Florida Canine Academy, and others).  The name of a trainer alone is not insurance that the dog is effective, since continued training and effective handling are key.
  2. It’s also not enough to ask whether the dog is “certified;” it’s my understanding that effective bed bug sniffing canines may or may not be certified by NESDCA.  Florida Canine Academy also re-certifies its dogs yearly. Additional certification bodies may be springing up as I write this (remember, this is more or less a brand new sub-industry in canine scent detection).  Recommendations from other customers and a confirmation that the handler visually confirms alerts should do a lot to guide you in selecting a dog.

Keep in mind that bed bug sniffing dogs can be a wonderful tool, but they are not all alike.  And remember that every time one sits or scratches or paws at something in your home, it does not necessarily mean there are bed bugs there.

Be like Dr. Mike Potter, and ask your dog handler to “Show me the bugs!”

Update (3/11):

The article mentioned that

(What Cruiser does is detect the scent of a bug or an egg; it’s up to an exterminator, said Mr. Ecker, to visually confirm the presence of bedbugs in the spots a dog has noted.)

This means customers may have to hire a pest control firm, after already hiring the dog team, before they ever find out with any certainty that they have bed bugs present. This is why we recommend you hire a dog team which visually confirms any alerts (or at least makes a concerted effort to visually verify each alert).

Lou Sorkin also reminded me about the following statement in the article, which I did not comment on above:

Like all scent-detecting dogs, Cruiser and Freedom work for food; put another way, they are fed only when they find their target, which keeps them accurate and keen on their jobs.

It is not true that all bed bug sniffing dogs are trained with food rewards. This practice is the source of some controversy.

Note: this is a FAQ and a work in progress.  As such, your insightful comments and suggestions are appreciated below!  If you have a connection with the bed bug canine scent detection industry, you may mention this in your response, but please do not use the comments as a forum for advertising your services.

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1 nobugsonme March 11, 2010 at 7:01 pm

Updated.

2 nobugsonme March 13, 2010 at 2:33 pm

There’s quite an active discussion going on about this article in the forums.

3 H. Kligman May 1, 2010 at 5:33 am

We have been working at eradicating this problem for the past 5 months. Have had multiple sprays/treatments. Even brought in a dog from a separate company to source where they were hiding. Am convinced we are 98% there. I have a number of items that resided in the bedroom that cannot be steamed or sprayed (books, shoes, [purses etc). Is it true if they are double/triple encased in plastic bags and left out in the sun that they will be killed? If so, how long do you need to leave them out for?

Thank you.

4 nobugsonme May 3, 2010 at 2:32 pm

H. Kligman,

Bagging things and leaving them out may possibly kill bed bugs, but would require the items to reach a temperature of 120F at their core. When professionals thermally treat items, they use probes to ensure core temps reach 120F. This generally requires heating the space to 140F or so, and maintaining this for hours and hours.

Your stuff outside is unlikely to reach the required temps at the core of the items, and these temps are unlikely to be
maintained. For this reason, I would strongly advise against trying to do this.

Smaller items may be treated under controlled, monitored conditions using a Packtite. (See http://Bedbugger.com/usefulstuff for links to more information on Packtite.)

5 orange May 20, 2010 at 12:51 pm

Is it true that books cannot be treated? What happens to them then?

6 nobugsonme May 20, 2010 at 11:42 pm

orange,

No. Books can be treated. One method is a Packtite, which you can use to heat treat small items at temps of around 140 (the goal is 120 F, but you should be prepared for it to go higher). You can read about the Packtite here. Heat should be fine for most books, though of course very old/rare books may be damaged by heat.

Some people get their homes treated thermally or with sulfuryl fluoride, and this also kills bed bugs in books.

If you have no other options, some people seal books in an airtight fashion for 18 months. I would personally prefer other options. Not only can this be “expensive” in terms of time (and money, if storage space or replacement items must be purchased), but there’s a chance of a bag being improperly sealed and sabotaging the whole plan.

If your home is being properly treated with sprays and dusts, it may also be possible to just wait, as any bed bugs which may be hiding there should theoretically try to come out to feed, cross poison and die. I would be most likely to say this may be an idea if you have no evidence there are bed bugs on, in, or near books. Your pest control professional may be the best one to advise you (if they’re good!)

However, a caveat: if you have known harborages in books / bookshelves or near them, then you will want a more aggressive approach than the “wait for them to cross poison” method. As sign that this is a problem would be seeing bed bugs on books or bookshelves.

7 orange May 21, 2010 at 7:30 am

I see. Thanks a lot. Do you generally prefer heat treatment or the chemical approach? Thank you.

8 nobugsonme May 21, 2010 at 10:43 am

If you have a free-standing home and can afford it, then I would personally go for thermal or Vikane, since they solve the problem in one go, and minimize prep (though there is always something to do — in this case, removing items which can’t be treated with those methods).

Make sure you use a reputable provider, and find out what their guarantee is. Most guarantees don’t last long because of the possibility that you reinfest yourself. However, mistakes do happen and you want some assurance that if there are bed bugs after treatment, it will be corrected.

If you have an apartment, or attached home, Vikane is not an option.

If you have an apartment or attached home, thermal is an option, but you may want to be reasonably sure the neighbors aren’t going to send bed bugs over when the treatment is done.

All that said, most people either can’t afford thermal/Vikane, or don’t have access to them, or don’t get to make the call. I’d probably fall into one of the latter categories if I had a problem right now. Chemicals and dusts can work. Steam is a contact killer but can be effective, and some providers will steam before laying down chemicals and dusts.

Killing bed bugs using steam, dusts, chemicals is labor-intensive, and knowing this may help you find a better pest management professional.

As I said on the encasements thread, orange, I really recommend the forums to you. There are a lot of other opinions besides mine, but you’re more likely to get them quickly over there.

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