In many ways, Alec Dakin’s Black Labrador, Sherlock, is like any other canine.
He has a lot of energy, loves to play fetch, jumps on visitors to his home and goes bonkers for his favorite squeaky toy.
But while some 16-month-old dogs earn a treat or a romp outside with their owners for performing tricks such as: “Fido, sit!” or “roll over!” Sherlock is rewarded with his favorite toy for a whole different type of trick — sniffing out parasitic insects that hide in tiny cracks and crevices of homes, restaurants, hotels and other public establishments.
Yes, bed bugs, those parasitic creatures that bite exposed skin and feed on a person’s blood while he or she sleeps.
Sherlock, Dakin’s new pet, is Greenville SureShot Pest Control’s newest employee. He is trained to detect as few as a single live bed bug or viable bed bug egg.
A purebred Black Lab from Greensboro, N.C., Sherlock joined the SureShot Pest Control team earlier this month. Dakin, who also is the business’ general manager, spent two weeks in North Carolina learning how to become both Sherlock’s owner and handler.
I had been wanting a dog for some time now and had been thinking more and more seriously about it,” Dakin said. “The owner (of SureShot), Paul, and I had talked about the possibility of a bed bug dog before. It just seemed like the right time and way to go about it.”
Bed bug-detecting dogs have become increasingly popular throughout the past few years, as knowledge of America’s rising bed bug population has spread.
An extensive infestation of bed bugs in the New York City area a few years ago helped draw attention to the problem of bed bugs in the U.S., and many New York-area pest control companies called upon the noses of highly trained canines to assist with the infestation.
The dogs’ prowess in sniffing out the bugs and their eggs was explored in multiple articles by the New York Times. But Dakin said there are not enough bed bug-detecting dogs to meet the high demand being generated by the increase in infestations.
A 2010 study conducted by the University of Kentucky and the National Pest Management Association reported that 95 percent of 1,000 participating pest-management companies had encountered a bed bug infestation in 2009. That percentage is up 70 percent from a decade ago.
Dakin said his company has seen an increase in bed bug-related calls in the Belding, Greenville and Ionia areas. Dakin’s experience mirrors that of the national trend: Reports show the highest incidences of bed bugs are occurring in private residences, followed by hotels and motels, college dorms, public transportation, laundromats and movie theaters, according to the University of Kentucky.
The Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo areas earlier this year appeared on a list of top 50 cities in the U.S. for number of bed bug treatments, according to Orkin, a well-known national pest control company. Cincinnati was ranked No. 1 for bed bugs, followed by Detroit, according to the report.
Dakin said experts claim the resurgence of bed bugs is due to companies in the past overusing pesticides, resulting in some very resilient and pesticide-resistant bugs. Dakin also attributes the rise in infestations to the global economy and people traveling frequently for work.
He said bed bugs can hide virtually anywhere and can travel in shoes, on clothes and backpacks or in and on luggage. Electrical outlets, mattresses and box springs and sofas are the bugs’ most common hangouts.
“It’s hard to say where the bed bugs could be coming from,” Dakin said. “The perception is that people who are dirty get bed bugs, but it’s not that simple. Washing and drying your sheets and clothing often obviously can help. Not putting your luggage on the bed when you go to hotels. Not renting furniture from popular rental places.
Largely, the U.S. has been well under-educated when it comes to bed bugs, according to Dakin.
Bed bug detecting is incredibly challenging for humans, Dakin said, explaining the tiny insects are difficult to see with the naked eye. Adult bed bugs, according to the University of Kentucky, are about three-sixteenths of an inch long and reddish brown in color with oval-shaped, flattened bodies. Their eggs are white and about the size of a spec of dust.
“The time it takes a trained dog to find bed bugs is two to five minutes,” Dakin said. “Whereas it can take the average human an hour and a half — and they’re only 30 to 40 percent accurate.”
How accurate the trained dogs are at detecting bed bugs varies, both in industry and outside research, Dakin said. Many studies report an 80 to 90 percent accuracy rating. One study from the University of Florida claims when properly trained, the dogs can be up to 98 percent accurate, Dakin said.
Personality is key when training dogs to detect bloodthirsty bed bugs. The dogs have to be really playful and goal driven, according to Dakin. A dog’s toy ball is one great way to measure the dog’s knack for bed bug-sniffing.
“They can’t care about anything but that ball — that’s what motivates them,” Dakin said.
For Sherlock, it’s a big game, Dakin said. And Sherlock knows there is a prize at the end.
Sherlock gets so excited sometimes “that he literally chomps at the bit,” Dakin said. “… He knows that when he finds bugs, and he sits down, he knows his ball is coming. And he’ll chatter his teeth a million miles an hour in excitement. It’s really funny.”
Similar to dogs that are trained to detect drugs and alcohol for law enforcement agencies, it is important for Dakin and Sherlock to maintain a healthy balance between having a loyal, “man’s best friend” relationship and a working relationship.
While the two play a lot of fetch, Dakin also keeps live bed bugs in air-permeable containers at his home so he and Sherlock can practice sniffing out the insects.
Dakin said because Greenville’s SureShot Pest Control is a small business, purchasing a bed bug-detecting dog was a big investment. Many news reports show the dogs can carry an $11,000 price tag.
“They are very expensive, so any word you want to use to describe entrepreneurship and risk-taking can definitely be associated with the purchase of this dog,” Dakin said. “We hope once word spreads, we’ll be able to expand our bed bug-related business to be more commercial, traveling all over the Midwest.”
Article and photographs by Danielle Russell, of Grand Rapids, who is a former Daily News staff writer and Rockford Independent editor. She worked at AnnArbor.com but recently moved back to the Grand Rapids area with her husband, Brandon, to be closer to home.