Dogs sniff out enemy in battle against bedbugs

Published May 12, 2007

GAINESVILLE - She's 9 pounds of curious canine topped by a few tufts of hair. Part Chinese-crested terrier, part who-knows-what. Bedbugs fear her.

Nudie is one of the dogs being trained to detect the biting critters by the J&K Canine Academy in High Springs in collaboration with University of Florida entomologists.

Absent from the United States for so long that some people thought they were a myth, bedbugs are back with a vengeance.

The National Pest Control Association reports that exterminators who were getting one or two bedbug calls a year are now getting that many in a week - roughly 50 times the number of calls.

That puts dogs such as Nudie on the front lines of defense against the blood-sucking critters that come out at night to feed.

She was one of the approximately 20 dogs being tested for their termite- and bedbug-detecting accuracy during the Southeast Pest Management Conference on the University of Florida campus earlier this month.

"We've been working to try to make sure that there are quality dogs out there to detect termites, and now bedbugs, " said Phil Koehler, an entomology professor with UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

"Both those pests are very difficult to detect in structures, " he said.

Nudie works for treats from owner and handler Jose "Pepe" Peruyero, who found her at the Lake City animal shelter.

She scrambles across a mattress in a demonstration of her bug-sniffing accuracy.

"Find your B's. Find your B's, " Peruyero commands.

Within seconds, Nudie is pawing furiously at a spot on the bed.

The J&K Canine Academy has been training termite-sniffing dogs, usually Brace beagles, for three years in cooperation with UF entomologists. Now the school has begun training dogs to detect a resurgent population of bedbugs.

Dogs aren't a silver bullet when it comes to finding termites or bedbugs, Peruyero says, but they have skills humans don't.

Peruyero explains it this way: A human can walk into a kitchen and know - through sense of smell - that stew is cooking on the stove.

But a dog's sense of smell is so sharp that it can be trained to distinguish a stew made with carrots from one without.

Experts say the resurgence of bedbugs can be attributed in part to the use of less powerful pesticides since DDT was banned in the 1960s.

The critters were all but wiped out in the U.S. until several years ago, when they began migrating here from other countries, health officials say.

Now they've been found in all 50 states, according to the National Pest Control Association.

While they can be unsettling and leave a red welt behind when they bite, experts say bedbugs do not pose a serious health risk.