Dogs that detect bed bugs

Dogs that detect bed bugs

Companies are turning to sniffer dogs to spot these nasty blood-sucking insects. Are they reliable?

July 30, 2019

When Timoté Rostaing Séguin hid a bottle containing 3 bed bugs in my couch, my immediate reaction was, “Um, how tight is the lid on that bottle?”

The young man, who tracks the 6-legged vampires with his dog, Jag, for Orkin Canada, burst out laughing and assured me that his test was safe.

After hiding his little Draculas, Timoté touched other furniture in the living room and walked through the house so that his scent wasn’t concentrated in one place. “Otherwise, my dog will know right away where I hid the bottle,” he explains. At that point, Timoté brought in his canine partner.

Once Jag’s harness was attached, signifying he was “at work,” the dark black Lab charged straight into the house, passing through the doorway without saying hello. He rushed into the bedroom and padded around the bed, lifting the comforter with his nose to the mattress. Then Jag went to the chair, hesitated a bit (heaven forbid he actually found bed bugs there!) before rushing to another room to sniff all around. Finally, he ran to the living room, circled it 3 times with his muzzle in the air, sat in front of the couch and put his nose in the very place where the bottle was hidden. Bingo!

“Jag took longer than usual,” admits his master, rewarding the dog with a treat. But, given the breeze coming through the open windows and the pre-existing smell of my own dog—big distraction—it’s a good result.

Preventing problems
Endowed with a sense of smell far more powerful than humans, dogs are trained to detect drugs, explosives and, increasingly, bed bugs. For starters, their speed and range of action save time. Secondly, they can find a tiny number of insects—before they infest an entire building. That's why hotels, hospitals and seniors' residences, among other institutions, use canines as a preventive measure.

According to a January 2019 Orkin Canada survey, Toronto and Winnipeg are the Canadian cities with the most bed bugs. Montreal is ranked 18th, behind Vancouver (4th) and Ottawa (6th).

In 2017, 3.5% of Montreal residences were infested with bed bugs, according to the Regional directorate of public health in Montreal, who assure me that the statistic has remained constant since then. Harold Leyvey, the owner of Maheu Enterprises, which has provided extermination services for over 40 years, believes the infestation rate is higher than this. “The problem spreads more widely each year. These bugs multiply at the speed of light and cause serious physical and psychological damage,” he says.

The canine solution isn’t 100% reliable
Canine scouts are appealing. However, if they’re 100% reliable in a controlled environment, they can be less dependable on the ground, according to a study conducted by the Department of Entomology at Rutgers University, New Jersey. The Rutgers research team found that in some cases, the use of dogs has been 50% less effective than demonstrated in laboratory tests.

But it's not always the animal’s fault. Some people wing it and create their own version of the dog handler role. And the training is sometimes deficient. Police dogs, for example, are better trained than some of their fellow canine bug spotters, according to the authors of the Rutgers study.

“Dogs provide clues, but their masters need to confirm the facts,” says Harold Leyvey, owner of Maheu Enterprises, which has specialized in pest management for 40 years. “Bed bugs are as big as apple seeds and can be seen with the naked eye. You can also notice small black spots, their excrement.”

Beware profiteers
Recently, one of my friends hired a dog handler after his tenant saw what looked like a bed bug. The man’s 2 puppies sat one after the other in front of a bed and a sofa, but the accommodation was impeccable, according to a well-known specialist who was called in for reinforcement. “Before leaving, the handler handed me the card of a heat treatment specialist,” says my friend. “If I had used his services, it would have cost me $6,000 for nothing, a lot more than standard extermination."

Welded together forever
Timoté Rostaing Séguin and his dog Jag are among the extremely few duos to be certified by the National Entomology Scent Detection Canine Association and the World Detector Dog Organization. The young man claims that his company's dogs are tested every year and are 98% reliable “when the situation is ideal.” However, he’s not afraid to say that his dogs aren’t machines and that he always verifies afterward if there are indeed bugs.

“Some dogs can run all over the place,” says Timoté. “But our job is to ensure they stay on the right path. Jag and I have been together 24 hours a day for six years. I know him inside out. I imagine you can instinctively sense it when your boyfriend tries to pull one over on you? It's the same for me. When the real smell of bed bugs penetrates Jag’s nostrils, I see it in him right away because he instantly changes his behaviour. He turns his head, freezes a few seconds, then nothing else exists except that scent. Not even me!”

Jag, who is 8 years old, will retire in October. “He belongs to the company I work for, but I'm sure I’ll keep him,” says the young man, his voice full of emotion. “However, I will have to return to California, where our dogs are trained, to find another one. Jag will help the new sniffer dog in the beginning, then he will work 4 days out of 5, 3 days ... then not at all. It's going to be hard for him. For the past 6 years he’s jumped in the car to go to work with me every morning. My only consolation is that, growing older, he needs more love than action. I hope that will suffice.”

Photos: François Haché, photographer

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