Bug InFetchstation – Pest control company uses bedbug-sniffing dogs

by Martha Michael

We’ve seen it in law enforcement – bomb-sniffing and drug-sniffing dogs at airports and other public places to enhance the safety of our citizens.

But you may not be aware that those same talents can be applied to safeguard homeowners and residents of convalescent hospitals from unwelcome visitors. That’s why Animal and Insect Pest Management, Inc. uses dogs to sniff out bedbugs.

The company is based in Simi Valley, but has technicians that cover areas as far north as Santa Maria to as far south as the California-Mexico border. The business has been in operation for more than 35 years, and a dozen years ago the vice-president of operations – Margaret Townsend – became the new owner.

Townsend is also one of the dog handlers for “Ruger,” a yellow lab who she says is a “sweetheart.”

“Ruger can pick up when there are very, very few bugs, when we humans can’t pick it up with the naked eye,” she said. “It’s 100 percent identical to police dogs.”

Jerry Eriks is one of those responsible for training Ruger, joining forces with law enforcement dog trainers.

“We’ll go in with a police dog when they’re training, and we make it a game,” Eriks said. “I’ll hide bomb-making equipment; I’ll hide narcotics; and they’ll take the bedbugs and hide them from me.”

Trainers put bedbugs with a tennis ball and hide them together and progressively cut away more and more of the tennis ball until they’re only hiding bedbugs. The training is ongoing, so that Ruger maintains his accuracy, becuase the company and its customers have to be able to trust his nose.

“It’s extremely powerful – when he is working he has this personality that says, ‘Get out of my way,’ and he gets rewarded with a tennis ball,” Townsend said. “The most fun I have with him is when we go to convalescent homes. They try to pet him, but he stays pretty focused.”

Ruger “alerts” by sitting and pointing his head toward the location of the bedbugs.

“When there’s something there, he will not pull off, he will not stand up,” Townsend said, explaining why the dog is trained using a tennis ball for reinforcement rather than food. “At a convalescent home where we brought him to search, he went walking through the resident’s home and a gentleman had bacon and eggs right at Ruger’s level, but he walked right past it.”

Townsend refers to bedbugs as “hitchhikers.”

“It’s not a dirty thing,” she said. “You could put a backpack down on the floor of a room and they could get on your backpack and that’s how they spread really easily.”

The heavy chemicals used in America in the middle of the 20th century destroyed such pests, but once those were prohibited by the FDA, bedbugs and similar pests have come back in numbers. Handlers at Animal and Insect Pest Management, Inc. are even skilled enough to figure out the origin of the infestation.

“When we are in a condo complex, you can determine where it started, most likely, because that condo is totally infested with them,” Townsend explained.

When you have a bedbug-sniffing dog, the field rep has to have an SPCB, or Structural Pest Control Board field representative license.

Margaret Townsend and Ruger, photo by Mel Carl

“What a technician can inspect in two to four hours it takes Ruger 15 minutes to do,” Eriks said.

The company warns its clients that part of Ruger’s job is to get on top of beds and couches.

“We have to make sure the dog has access to all corners and all areas to properly search,” Townsend said. “Bedbugs like tight areas – creases of a couch, corners of a bed, behind pictures.”

They can fit in smaller spaces than most people are aware.

“They can go almost anywhere,” Eriks said. “They hide in cracks – anywhere you can hide a business card or credit card.”

Experts won’t combine Ruger’s skills as a canine bedbug detection dog with another role, because if he’s trained on narcotics or something else, he will alert on other items. “He has to be ‘on’ every time he’s doing the job,” Townsend said. “It’s pretty amazing how they get him dialed in.”

The application for Ruger’s work is varied.

“We are a full-service pest control company,” Townsend explained. “We do a lot for universities, rental control properties. Because they’re hitchhikers, sometimes a resident doesn’t know they keep bringing the bedbugs back.”

If Ruger does alert for a client, the homeowner or landlord has the option to hire a company to do a heat treatment, bringing the area to 145 degrees for a few hours to kill bedbugs. There are also spot treatments available.

For more information, contact Animal and Insect Pest Management by visiting MyAIPM.com.