On patrol: Bed Bug Dogs Mean Business

Rick Schoening moves inconspicuously into a hotel lobby, rolling behind him a cart containing some equipment and a small dog crate. The dog inside makes no sound, allowing Schoening to keep a low profile. Hotel staff knows who he is, but for now, guests aren't privy to the fact that Schoening and his dog, Max, are on a mission to find bed bugs.


A rewarding job

Max, a 3-year-old beagle, and his canine companion, Daisy, a year his junior, appear to love their work and are excellent "employees" of Wil-Kil Pest Control. They have a tremendous work ethic and are often praised and rewarded for jobs well done. They eat well – only healthy foods – visit the vet twice a year, receive regular grooming, and tour the Midwest without an inkling of rising gas costs.

Schoening, canine scent detection specialist for Wil-Kil, is Max's trainer and constant companion. Mike Zemanovic handles Daisy. The men have signed up for a 365-day-a-year, 24-hour-a-day life with their dogs in the fight against bed bugs. "I eat, sleep and breathe with my dog," Schoening said, as they work to save man- and woman-kind from the dreaded vampires of the insect world.

About the size of a tick when full-grown, fast-moving bed bugs are creepy-crawly insects that hitchhike their way all around the world; vile predators that sneak out of their comfy confines in the middle of the night to suck the blood out of unsuspecting humans.

It would be funny if it weren't true, but this is a very serious and expensive business.

Bed bugs are showing up everywhere – homes and apartments, elevators, hotels, hospitals, schools, waiting rooms, retail stores, locker rooms, movie theaters, airlines, and luggage. According to Wil-Kil, the bed bugs here are often found in second-hand, upholstered furniture, so you may want to think twice the next time you feel compelled to pick up that "free" curbside sofa or chair.

The bugs' proliferation has more to do with a ban on pesticides than uncleanliness. "Chemicals (i.e., DDT) that used to take care of the bugs are no longer available," Schoening said. Once carried inside homes or businesses, they hide and lay eggs. At night, they picnic on an unsuspecting piece of human flesh, then retreat. "We've found that the bugs bite primarily between one and four in the morning," said Randy Allen, regional manager for Wil-Kil. "Humans are 98.6 degrees. The heat and the carbon dioxide we emit brings them out." Humans will wake up with welts the next morning – or sometimes weeks later – making the bugs extremely difficult to track.

For hotels and hospitals, the issue is critical to business operations. Recently, five bed bugs found on three hospital patients in Vancouver, British Columbia were found to be carrying drug-resistant bacteria, or "superbug" germs, raising new concerns. "Beds are our sanctuary," Allen says, "and 70% of bed bugs are found around beds."

Before instituting the Wil-Kil canine program, the company would conduct visual inspections, which yielded about a 40% to 45% success rate. But when a nationwide bed bug outbreak occurred several years ago, Schoening approached Allen with the canine idea, which he'd seen on TV.

The initial investment was substantial: $17,000 per dog, which includes the dog itself, training, and travel. At the academy, the beagles learn to detect the scent of live bed bugs and viable eggs only, an important distinction in the pest control industry.

Training is a constant process involving a game of hide-and-seek. Both Schoening and Zemanovic train with their dogs morning and night, planting "hides" (small vials of live bed bugs) somewhere in a room or on a person. Each time the dog successfully locates the hide, it gets praised and receives food. "The food drive is very important for training," Schoening says. He always has bugs on hand – collected from work sites – so Max's voracious appetite will be satisfied.

The dog teams are kept busy, fielding as many as 40 calls a week. Max eats between two to three cups of food a day, while Daisy eats less, based on their metabolisms. The number of bugs the dogs locate will also determine how much they'll eat. Wil-Kil covers all of the dogs' expenses.

Back in Madison, this hotel contracts for the canine service twice a month, at a cost of about $900 per visit. "It's expensive," a hotel representative admits, choosing to remain anonymous, "but if you have a problem, it could cost thousands of dollars." Schoening concurs. "Bed bugs are hard to budget for, but they can also destroy a budget."

At the hotel, Schoening and Zemanovic release the dogs from their crates and separately but quietly guide them on leashes in and out of vacant hotel rooms. Noses down (and tails wagging) it takes about two minutes for a dog to work the perimeter of a room, sniffing every piece of furniture for the bed bug scent. They can canvass between 30 and 35 rooms in an hour. If the scent is detected, the dogs typically "alert" by scratching.

Suddenly, as Max enters one guest room, he becomes highly agitated, howling with excitement. Within seconds, he burrows his nose deep between a mattress and box spring and locates a hide Schoening had placed earlier that day. He jars the vial loose and it falls to the floor. Instantly, the dog loses all interest. Schoening praises and rewards him with a nibble of food.

The life of a bed bug dog is all about the scent, not, ironically, the bugs. "Max wouldn't know a bed bug if one bit him on the nose," laughed Allen. But that trained nose boasts a 95% success rate.

Luckily, there is no sign of bed bugs this day, but that might not always be the case. "If a hotel tells you they don't have a problem, they're lying," said the hotel representative. "All it takes is somebody to stay in an infested room somewhere [then carry them in]. We try to be as thorough and proactive as we can." Hotel management believes the canine service gives them a competitive advantage, should customers inquire. "We do everything and more. We have such good protection. Max and Daisy are busy."

If bugs are found in a room, companies, including Wil-Kil, can offer either chemical or a convection-style heat treatment where infested rooms, and often adjacent rooms, are heated to 135 degrees for between five and seven hours. At Wil-Kil, Max and Daisy would then re-enter the space 24 hours later to give the "all clear."

"I know the dogs are expensive," the Madison hotel rep said, "but we save time [with heat treatments] and the room doesn't have to be torn apart. Their noses are much more reliable than a person's eye."

At home, Max mingles with the Schoening family and the other pets, and gets about 30 minutes of playtime each night, "but he's not the sit-on-the-couch-and-watch-TV" kind of dog, his trainer notes. Daisy, too, is considered a member of the Zemanovic household, living among a menagerie of cats and cockatiels.

For Wil-Kil, the investment is paying off. "[The canine program] has exceeded our expectations by about 35%," said Allen, though he would not share exact figures.

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