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Imagine you're the owner of a hotel, a guest checks in. Great, right? Maybe not… this guest is bringing bed bugs in their luggage from the last hotel they were at, and now you have them at your establishment. If left undetected, your next patron is going to be in for a rough night, you are going to get really bad reviews on the travel sites you depend on for business, a visit from public health authorities, fines, expensive charges for extermination, and the cost of replacing damage to linens from infestation and treatment. Bad news for your business.
Bed bugs are tiny, insidious, and difficult to discover until they become widespread, biting their unsuspecting human victims and infesting themselves throughout your home or business. But what if you could detect bed bugs immediately, before they spread, or better yet detect them in the luggage of guests checking in to your hotel? Well, there is hope; dogs can be trained to detect the scent of bed bugs with very reliable accuracy. This skill can be used to prevent infestations from spreading, good news for business owners affected by bed bugs and homeowners or apartment dwellers that suspect they may have been contaminated with these pesky critters.
It turns out pests have a smell, be they termites, ants or bed bugs, these organisms have their own unique odor, an odor which can be identified by a dog with a keen sense of smell. In order to detect bedbugs, you will need to teach your dog to search a specified area, which will involve scanning all items in a room to detect the scent of live bed bugs. You do not want your dog to alert to the scent of dead bugs or remnant shells and egg casings that may indicate an old infestation that has already been dealt with, though. This would be a false positive alert, and could result in unneeded treatment of an area that contains no live bugs. Once your dog is trained to distinguish and identify the scent of live bedbugs, he will need to provide you with a sign or signal to alert you to his discovery. Often a dog is trained to point with their noses, sit next to, or paw at the location infested as an alert. Dogs that are currently being used to detect bed bugs have a high detection rate when compared to other detection methods, well above 90%. As an added benefit, dogs can smell and identify bed bugs through several layers of fabric or materials, whereas humans would need to dismantle and disturb materials in order to visually detect bedbugs. Using a dog to smell for bed bugs is quicker, more accurate and less invasive, a triple threat!
Any breed of dog can be used for bed bug detection, however, some breeds, such as hounds, Border Collies, Labs, Aussies and Jack Russell Terriers, are particularly successful due to their scenting ability and motivation to work. Smaller dogs that can easily access residences and businesses and reach nooks and crannies, closets, and bureaus and be lifted to access difficult areas may be very useful in some circumstances. Dogs being used to detect bed bugs will need to be obedient and well socialized. Usually, dogs are started in training between 8 and 12 months, although in some cases older dogs can be used. Commands such as ‘seek’, ‘show me’, or ‘find the bugs’, may be used to initiate searching behavior. In order to be used commercially, certification for bedbug detection dogs is required. You should investigate the certification process before initiating training, so you have a good idea what is expected. Training facilities with mock hotel rooms are often set up by facilities training bed bug dogs, to provide realistic training simulations. It takes a significant time investment to train a bed bug dog, with 800 plus hours of training involved, so a large commitment on the part of trainers is required.
You will need to use live bed bugs to train your dog to scent bed bugs--be careful, you don’t want them getting loose! These can be obtained in the field from an active infestation, or purchased commercially. However, now the real problem begins: containing them so that your training facility or home does not become infested. During training sessions, bed bugs may be kept in small canisters, sealed with fine gauze of mesh and with tiny holes poked in the lid to provide for air circulation and scent release, but prevent the bugs from escaping. Transferring bugs between training receptacles and housing can be challenging, and because they are tiny, ensuring that secure housing and blood meals are available for any bed bugs being used over an extended period can be challenging. Mesh covered containers used for housing live bed bugs will also provide a source for egg casings, shells, and fecal matter of the bed bugs which can be used to help teach the dog scent discrimination so that the dog learns not to alert to anything but live bugs.
The Associate with Food Method
Make a game out of receiving food. Make your dog earn rewards from the start. Very young dogs can be taught to scent and receive food hidden under containers. Dogs that need to sniff out and locate their food are also being taught important scanning behaviors.
Put live bugs in containers, sealed with mesh, so that scent can escape but bugs can’t. Put the bedbug containers with the food under a container.
When the dog stops at or indicates a container with food and the bedbug sample, provide the food. Ignore if your dog stops at a container with no bedbugs or food.
Put some samples of food alone under containers and some with bedbugs and food.
When the dog stops at or indicates a container with food and the bedbug sample, provide the food. Ignore if your dog stops at a container with food but no bedbugs.
Practice repeatedly. Start introducing samples of dead bedbugs, shell casings, and fecal matter as well and only reward your dog for indicating live bugs.
Start putting samples under containers with no food, when your dog indicates live bedbugs, provide food as a treat from your hand.
Start practicing scanning larger environments, such as rooms with bed bugs. Provide treats for indicting bedbug locations.
The Search and Find Method
Set up mock rooms and place canisters containing a strong scent like food, vanilla, or peanut butter in hiding spots around the room.
Provide the command to search and let your dog loose or keep him on a loose leash in the search area. Let your dog search the room, encourage him to looking behind furniture, upholstery and mattresses, baseboards, investigating electrical outlets, carpeting and mats, under and behind objects and in drawers, to locate scents.
Teach your dog a signal such as ‘sit and look at me’ or ‘paw’ that will be used to indicate the presence of the drug scent. Use a hand signal to command and capture the behavior with a clicker.
Now use the hand signal and provide a live bed bug scent in a small container. When the dog performs the signal in response to the presence of the scent and hand signal, click and reward with food or toy play. Practice several times a day for a few weeks.
Gradually remove the hand signal, continue to present the bedbug scent and use the clicker and reward the dog performing the signal.
Set up multiple scent canisters containing a variety of bed bug scents including live bugs, egg casings, discarded shells, fecal matter and other competing substances of interest such as food in a room.
Take your dog in the room and ask him to search. When he locates live bedbug samples, click and reward. When he identifies another scent or dead material, ignore.
Repeat and practice frequently, gradually you can remove the clicker and just provide a reward when your dog identifies and signals for live bed bugs.
The Match Samples Method
Set up samples
Use containers, such as salt shakers with gauze over lid area, to contain bugs. Put live bedbugs in 3 of 5 containers, fecal matter and dead cells in the other two.
Provide match scent
Provide your dog with only the live bug shakers and let him sniff them, provide treats or play time as a reward after sniffing.
Remove your dog from the room and hide all 5 shakers in the room.
Ask your dog to ‘seek’. If your dog locates a shaker with dead material, ignore.
When your dog identifies and signals on a shaker with live bedbugs, reward him with treats or play.
Repeat and practice in different environments, different hiding places, and with distractions.
Stop providing the matching live bug scent, ask your dog to locate live bugs and signal you without the matching sample. Reward success.
By Amy Caldwell
Published: 12/06/2017, edited: 01/08/2021