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On My Mind: Bedbugs!

I received a phone call from the National Pest Management Association (NPMA). They were looking for a dog-training speaker for a conference about dogs and pest control.

Why me? Bedbugs. Bedbugs are big news these days. The National Pest Management Association guys told me that some reliable companies in the pest-control business already use dogs. Dogs can find termite infestations, fire ants, and mold inside the walls. They can find bedbugs, too.

The problem is there are a lot of newcomers in the field. The NPMA guy said, “Just about anyone thinks they might be able to train their pet dog to find bedbugs.”

dog lying on a bed

Some people are out-and-out charlatans, pretending the dog found bedbugs and making you pay for extermination services you don’t really need. Some are well-meaning individuals who have not really trained their dogs and who might miss an infestation.

What’s needed? Reliable people with reliable dogs. I said operant conditioning was the way to go, but it turns out that the NPMA really wanted advice on things like nutrition, not training.

Business opportunity, with special concerns

So, here’s a possible business opportunity for any skilled clicker trainer, right? In fact, some Karen Pryor Academy (KPA) Certified Training Partners (CTPs) are already thinking about it.

From a training standpoint, it’s straightforward scent work, like training for narcotics or bombs or mines or pheasants in tall grass or cancer cells in human urine. Doable—and doable more quickly and reliably with clicker training.

But bedbugs? Hmm, you’d have to have some bedbugs to start with. Uh-oh. You’d have to feed them. What do you do—stick your arm in once a month and let your bedbugs bite?

I went right to Google to find out if you could BUY bedbug scent somewhere. Turns out bedbugs have a smell all right. Google warns that if you step into a hotel room with a peculiar, musty, moldy, honey-like odor, you shouldn’t stay there. Don’t even put your bag down while you think it over.

Early industry professionals

This doesn’t mean that you never need a dog. A few bedbugs might not produce a smell a human would notice, yet even a few are too many. So you could try BedBugDogs.com. They’re a branch of Southern Star Ranch K9 Training Center, near Austin, Texas. This outfit has been training and selling arson dogs, narcotics dogs, and so on for quite a while. They’ll sell you a trained bedbug dog for $5995 (the same price as a narcotics dog or arson dog). They’ll train you as the handler as well (a two-week onsite program). They are careful—if you don’t get the handling right, you don’t get the dog.

Or, if you have a suitable dog already (they describe what the dog needs to bring to the table, besides a nose), they’ll teach you to train your own bedbug dog. That costs $3495, and takes six weeks.

BedBugDogs is not the only outfit doing this. You could go to BedBugDog.com (this web address has no letter “s”) as well, for specialists in training and selling dogs for forensic purposes, such as arson detection and cadaver searches. (And bedbug detection.)

Now mind you, trainers at these companies are not using clicker training. If you are a clicker trainer with a clicker dog, they would not be the right choice for you.

DIY, the clicker way

However, let’s say you already have the dog and the clicker training skills. Now all you need is bedbugs.

The pros say the bedbugs have to be live so the dogs learn to look for current infestations, not traces from old droppings or sheddings from the past.

But, how do you contain bedbugs? I’m told they can really travel. A bathtub would probably work. Or mason jars in an aquarium with an inch of water around them.

And, how do you feed the bedbugs? I picked up the phone and asked some of the guys. Well, you can stick your arm in and let them bite you. Or you could—sigh—use a rabbit. The bugs will probably take whole blood, too, if you can arrange a source.

And where do you GET your practice bedbugs, to start with? The head entomologist at NPMA advised me that they are usually “field collected,” meaning first you find an infestation and then you catch your own.

Bedbugs can be anyplace: fancy hotels, elegant apartment buildings, law offices, schools, restaurants, airplanes, cars, luggage, theaters—it’s a big opportunity. I’d stay away from the exterminators, myself. You don’t want to be seen as selling their services; your service is desirable in itself. For example, if the boutique hotel or New York penthouse apartment that hires you turns out to be clean, you could offer a monthly checkup to make sure it stays that way.

I would not use large imposing dogs. I would use dachshunds. They are hounds, after all, interested in scent. They are determined and persistent. I think five of them would be perfect, a nice little matching pack on matching leashes and collars. They’d look cute in the elevator. They’d scatter in all directions in the apartments or offices, sniffing to beat the band, and probably barking their heads off when they have a find.

You could make a mint. Provided you don’t mind having your own bedbugs.

About the author
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Karen Pryor is the founder and CEO of Karen Pryor Clicker Training and Karen Pryor Academy. She is the author of many books, including Don't Shoot the Dog and Reaching the Animal Mind. Learn more about Karen Pryor or read Karen's Letters online.

I would "love" to do this...

I am fascinated with scent detection & have been thinking for quite a while that I would like to get my next dog/dogs with training to detect bedbugs, termites, maybe mold, whatever (and I am curious about how many separate things one dog can reliably be trained to find) and then, maybe a separate one to harass geese (I have a fear, not a phobia & I suspect this is my way of trying to get over it ;) in my spare time. What I do not have any clue about is where to start or how to get there... yet. Of course, having to wait to get a new dog until one or more of my older guys passes makes me feel like a cruddy "dog mommy" but also makes me wonder if I will lose my opportunity to do so & realistically have a sustainable business, or whether I'll just be another newb in an increasingly crowded market...

I also would love to get into accelerant and/or narcotics detection but I have no desire for a career in law enforcement & I have no real idea how one gets involved with accelerant detection at all (other than having heard about State Farm's program) and I am not affiliated with a fire department either. I could see a market for either in the private sector though.

There's also the obvious advantage of then being the potential trainer/resource for the next person like me who comes along & would like to hire a trainer to help get their (suitable) dog from point A to point B. :) 

I wonder if a college with an entomology program and/or some student(s) working on a project related to bedbugs or termites might be cajoled into "loaning" a few out...

not very professional...

A woman I know suspected bedbugs in her house, so she hired a dog to come sniff for them. The dog raced through her house, and when they found him he was in her kitchen snarfing down HER dog's food from his bowl. (And he's gotten finicky in his old age, so it was probably really good food!) After getting his jackpot, the sniffer dog wasn't very interested in sniffing anymore.

trainer@caninesinaction.com's picture

I actually got a call about bedbug detection not too long ago, from an exterminator who wanted a detection dog for a particular warehouse job.  I told him that absolutely dogs could be trained for the task he described, but not in the two days by which he needed one.  :)  Still, it made me think, and I've been kicking around the idea since. Maybe someday...! 

I went to a client's home who had just purchased a bedbug detection dog.  Amazing to watch!  I am currently learning K9 Nosework and the process is the same.  I added the clicker as soon as my dog was put on scent and he picked it up immediately.   It's definitely the way to go!  I see it in the future too....  

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