Using Dogs to Sniff Out Bed Bugs

Just hearing the words “bed bug” can make people itch. And news reports about retail stores and movie theaters battling the tiny, blood-sucking insects have caused some New Yorkers to panic. But the bugs can be prevented -- and a four-legged weapon is gaining popularity in the battle against the six-legged pests.

"Cassie. Cassie. Come around," says David Kendrick, a former New Jersey K9 officer. Now employed by Action Pest Control, he gives the signal for Cassie, his 2-year-old black lab mix, to get ready to hunt for bed bugs. "Park it," he says.

Kendrick's clients include stores, theaters, and residential and office buildings. None of them wanted the media tagging along with Kendrick, so we went to a bench in SoHo for a demonstration. Cassie sniffed it but she didn't sit down, which would have indicated a bed bug. When she does sit down, in homes at least, Kendrick says, "We'll completely strip the bed, take the pillows off, suitcases, the covers, we'll check all around the seams of a mattresses. One of the places they hide is under the seam. If you take the seam of a mattress and flipped it up you'll find them there. You could find them in the back of a headboard." And in the boxsprings.

Kendrick says the bugs like warm, dark places where they can feast on people. So they're not likely to be riding subways or sitting on park benches unless they're stuck on a bag or a shoe. That's how they wind up in retail stores and movie theaters.

Kendrick's company claims to have doubled its revenues since creating a bed bug unit in 2007. The company owns three dogs that were specially trained in Florida, and a fourth is arriving this week. Kendrick uses a flashlight or magnifying glass to make sure the dogs really have found the tiny, brownish black pests.

"These dogs are so sensitive they can smell a single egg," he says. "They can smell a single bug. They can be hidden someplace where we can't actually see them. So we have to rely a lot basically on what the dog's indicating to us."

He says bed bugs are found in about 60 percent of the places he's called to inspect. It can cost hundreds of dollars an hour to bring in a dog. And if bugs are found, it can be hundreds more to exterminate them with chemicals and steam. But Kendrick says the dogs are worth it to narrow the scope of treatment.

Nobody really knows why bed bugs spread here and nationally in the 1990s. But entomologists and people in the pest control field believe they're here to stay.

"Bed bugs have been hitch-hiking on human beings ever since the beginning of history. This is what they do," says Richard Cooper. He runs a resource called BedBug Central and serves on the New York City Bed Bug Advisory board, which issued a report this summer recommending greater outreach and education. Cooper says New Yorkers shouldn't panic and throw out their upholstery. But they should take precautions, like encasing their mattresses and boxsprings. And if you bring in a pest control company, Cooper -- who runs one of his own -- says there are things to watch:

"One, are they confirming the problem? Two, the kind of preparations that they're giving you, are they situation specific, in other words, are they asking you to bag every single item that you own? A lot of pest control companies do."

And he says that shouldn't be necessary unless an apartment is completely infested. Cooper also cautions that companies should have multiple tools beyond chemicals, such as dogs, steam, vacuums and instant freezing.

He and other experts say if people had been more vigilant and had the city done more outreach years ago, the epidemic might not have spread so thoroughly. But now that it has, bed bugs -- like cockroaches -- are part of the urban landscape. And if you're still worried about movie theaters, well, Cooper says don't bring a lot of belongings because that could make it easier for any stray bugs to follow you home.