Rose Pest Solutions has developed a canine bed bug detection team made up of specially trained dogs and handlers to efficiently track down bed bugs.

An effective bed bug management program starts with early detection. It also starts with being able to consistently find bed bugs. That’s why canines — man’s best friend — can be a bed bug’s worst enemy.

Mark Sheperdigian, B.C.E., vice president of technical services for Rose Pest Solutions, Troy, Mich., said canine detection dogs can be a valuable part of a pest management professional’s bed bug toolbox.

Canines clearly shine in detecting light and moderate bed bug infestations and can cover a lot of ground in a short period of time, allowing inspectors to maximize their schedules, according to Sheperdigian.

“A canine team can cover 50,000 square feet of office space in a far more efficient manner than a human inspector,” said Sheperdigian.

And while adding bed bug canines has been a popular move for many companies over the past decade, there are still things PMPs are learning.

STARTING OUT. Before Rose brought on the firm’s first canine, Sheperdigian spent time talking with his peers identifying best practices of what to do and not to do when it came to adding canine inspectors.

“We knew pest control but not a lot about how dogs do pest control,” said Sheperdigian. “What we learned is that the handler is the most important part of a successful canine bed bug program.”

The first step is building in ample training time for the dog and professional development for the handler.

Another question that often comes up is do you hire the handler from outside the industry or within? Rose’s bed bug division manager started as a technician and loves dogs and was a natural choice to drive the business, but that’s not always the case.

A Rose Pest Solutions handler works with a dog on the canine bed bug detection team.

“There are people who know dogs and need to be taught pest control, and people who know pest control but need to learn about dogs,” said Sheperdigian. “It’s worked both ways for us.”

Sheperdigian noted it’s important for handlers, especially those hired from outside the industry, to fully understand how your company operates and what its vision is for the program. He leans heavily on the handlers to oversee the dogs’ training and care and notes that some companies have created corporate kennels on property, but Rose’s canines live with their handlers.

WHAT NOT TO DO. One of the most important pieces of advice Sheperdigian received on what not to do when getting started with canines was to divide up handlers’ time. To be successful, he was told, requires a company to dedicate the handlers’ time exclusively to work with the dogs.

“The dogs require a lot of work and attention, and a bond must be created between the handler and the dog,” said Sheperdigian. “The handler must interpret how the dog is feeling, and that is not done in a part-time role.”

Another valuable lesson Rose learned is having the correct handler-to-dog ratio. It’s recommended starting with two dogs and two handlers to have a backup in place.

“The biggest concern is overworking the handler and the dog,” said Sheperdigian. “They are with each other all day, every day. They train the dog, do the inspections, take the dog to the veterinarian, plus keep up with their own training.”

FALSE RESULTS. One of the challenges of working with canines is the risk of having false negative or false positive readings during an inspection. Sheperdigian said he’s seen instances where dogs register an alert based on air movement within a house or apartment.

“They may have registered an alert on a couch, but the actual infestation could be five or six feet away and the scent carried to the area by the couch,” said Sheperdigian. “I’ve also seen where a canine registered an alert because an adjacent unit had bed bugs and the negative air pressure forced the scent into air ducts. They recognize the scent but can’t find the location.”

A change in training for both the canine and handler also may be needed to eliminate false readings. Sheperdigian recommends finding out what the canine is alerting to and training to change the behavior.

Rose also performs extensive internal testing to measure the accuracy of the company’s canines. The company onboards new dogs by exposing them to the actual environments they’ll be working in.

“We take them through apartments with residents and expose them to a variety of situations,” said Sheperdigian. “We train to the environment.”

The reason for false negatives is most likely that the dog never detected the scent of the bed bug. During one training situation, a vial of bed bugs was placed on a bay window, and the heat from the sun caused the scent to rise. The dog walked right by the bay window without picking up the scent. When the same vial of bed bugs was placed on the other side of the same room away from the window, the scent dropped down lower, and the dog detected it.

False negative or false positive readings also can be triggered because of competing scents or the dog not feeling well or being tired at the end of a long day of inspections. Distractions caused by the presence of other dogs or cats in the residence also can throw a canine off its game. That’s why it’s important to have customers remove their pets during the inspection whenever possible.

Controlling the environment is another key element to a successful canine detection program. Understanding the impact of air flow — close windows and turn ceiling fans off — and eliminating distractions (i.e., pets in the house) will yield best results.

FORMING A BOND. Sheperdigian says Rose works diligently to have bed bug inspection teams that are well-bonded with one another.

“Dogs read the mood of the handler, and the handler’s emotions go right down the leash,” said Sheperdigian. “If the handler is mad or frustrated, the dog responds to that and can get distracted. The same is true for the handlers. Handlers must be able to read the dog and know what’s happening with them.”

Sheperdigian has seen companies cycle through different approaches using canines for bed bug inspections and recommends not buying or subcontracting a canine team unless you are prepared for what it entails.

“Do your homework, ask questions and be prepared to embrace both handlers and dogs into your operation,” said Sheperdigian.

The author is a partner at B Communications.