Monday, November 15, 2010

Bed bug sniffing dogs not perfect

From New York Times story.  11/11/2010
One of the most popular tactics in the world of bed bug IPM has got to be bed bug sniffing dogs.  Let's face it, a PMP with a worried face and a flashlight can't hold a candle to a cute pup with mysterious powers to sniff out bed bugs where they hide.  The problem, we are learning, is that bed bug sniffing dogs are fallible.

A New York Times article published last week details a number of cases where dogs gave "false positives"--that is they detected bed bugs when they didn't appear to be there.  According to the story, one couple paid $3,500 in extermination fees after a dog indicated there were bedbugs throughout their home. After throwing out a bed and 40 garbage bags full of clothes and baby toys, the customer continued to get bites.  Another pest control company couldn't detect any bed bugs, and eventually the problem was traced to a rodent mite infestation. 

While not a scientific evaluation of doggie abilities to sniff out pests, the story points out some nagging concerns about dogs and pest control. 

Assuming dogs can be trained to accurately and consistently sniff out bed bugs, many factors can influence the effectiveness of a dog team.  I say team, because a detector dog service is a team of animal and handler.  If the dog is poorly trained, or training is not reinforced on a daily basis, or a handler is not used to a dog (or vice versa), nearly everyone admits that reliability will suffer. 

Dogs were popular in some markets 10-15 years ago as termite detectors, but few companies seem to employ them today.  I suspect that the high cost of maintaining dogs and retaining handlers were the principal factors leading to the demise of termite beagles (though the U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service still employs contraband-sniffing dogs at international airports--and sniffing dogs are used in many other venues).  Perhaps the termite market wasn't robust enough to sustain termite-sniffing dogs.  It's yet to be seen whether bed bug sniffing dogs will have greater success.

If these dogs are going to make it, a credible certification program is sorely needed, as pointed out in the Times Article.  The stakes are very high, because a handler who suggests a room is infested when it's not stands to cost the customer a bunch of money.  And let's not forget the potential for fraud with unscrupulous handlers trying to drum up money to treat apartments or hotel rooms that don't need treatment.  It seems to me that this is one very good reason for pest control companies to keep their financial distance from canine detection services.

The key to developing effective IPM programs for bed bugs, I believe, is good monitoring and detection techniques.  Pitfall traps, pheromone and carbon dioxide traps, skilled inspectors, and sticky cards will undoubtedly be around for awhile.  But only time will tell whether bed bug dogs will find an honored place among the bloodhound, drug and bomb sniffing honor roll of service dogs.

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