Bed Bug Dogs – Detection Dogs Interdisciplinary Scent Group New England

I co-hosted a Detection Dogs Interdisciplinary Scent Group Seminar recently. We had participants from Nose Work, Narcotics, Explosives, Human Remains and Bed Bugs. The common theme is using dogs to detect scents. The other scents were distractions to the dogs. For a Narcotics dog, human remains is interesting but should be left alone. The dog will smell HR but move on, continuing to look for his target odor: Narcotics.

Bed Bugs are a challenge because their scent cone is smaller than the other scents. Bed bug dogs need to detail areas in order to get
their noses to the target scent. Generally it’s necessary to keep them on lead. My cadaver dog generally works off lead even in buildings. My bed bug dog works on lead. If I let her off lead she may pick up on a scent and follow it to source. But if it’s one bed bug she could miss it since the scent cone is so tiny. So working her on lead keeps her closely detailing and slows her down so she doesn’t miss the subtle bed bug odor.

The further challenge is that there are so many other distractions in people’s homes. During training you need to proof bed bug dogs off all the other food, toiletries, air fresheners, etc and although the bed bug dog can sniff, he must move on searching for his target odor: bed bugs. And with any kind of air flow, the dog may pick up the odor more readily but conversely the scent cone may be dispersed and the dog may have a more difficult time following the odor into source.

These challenges are true for all detection dogs. But my bed bug dog must work the cone longer before pinpointing the odor. And my bed bug dog must detail every room to ensure he doesn’t miss a tiny number of bed bugs. The earlier they are found the easier they are to exterminate. I bring along a pseudo scent on jobs and if there are 40 rooms I put out a vial every 5-10 rooms to keep my dog focused. My bed bug dog is very high drive but we all start seeing double after detailing countless identical rooms. And finding bed bugs is what makes it fun (and rewarding) for the dog.

Each discipline has it’s own challenges and detection dog training must be fine tuned to address these challenges.

How to Keep Your Bed Bug Dog Honest – The Importance of Defining Your Training Criteria.

Bed Bugs continue to be a problem and bed bug detection dogs are widely used to detect them.   “These specially trained canines are boast a 97% accurate in finding live infestations. This is compared to only the 30% accuracy of humans with visual detection.” (   Increasingly more clients are requesting dogs to find an infestation.  We as handlers need to ensure that our canine partners are being honest with us about finding the problem.  Set up your bed bug dog training for success.

The last three searches that I did with my canine were heavy infestations.  My bed bug dog’s alert is a sit.  She will detail an area and determine the location of the heaviest scent and do her alert.    I noticed on the third search my bed bug detection dog alerted on two beds and some bins under one of the beds. But when she got to a sofa, she jumped up and sat.  I didn’t believe her since I saw no sourcing behavior prior to the alert decision.  We knew that the house was infested and the owner adamantly wanted the entire house treated so no harm done.  But on my way home I stopped at the local hardware store and did a search with no alerts.  I wasn’t satisfied because the hardware store is a very different picture than a house.

I trust my dog so I immediately wanted to test her on a sofa where I knew there were no bed bugs.  Later that day I asked my neighbor if I could search her house.  My bed bug dog had never been in this house so I drove there just as I would in a search, put on my food pouch and leashed her up with her long lead.  No alerts until we got to one of her sofas.  Sure enough, same lack of sourcing behavior, she jumped up and sat.  I ignored it but waited her out and we moved ahead.  No alerts on the rest of the house.  We went back to the sitting room, same sofa, and she searched it and no alert.  She realized that she couldn’t get away with it.   The next day I went to another neighbor’s house, no alerts including the sofa.  My neighbor then hid two vials single blind (I didn’t know where they were) and my dog did two beautiful finds (but I asked my neighbor not to put them on the sofa).

I am taking any false alerts very seriously.  I can’t afford to have her false alerting and lose confidence in her.  Any false alerts and she is crated for a short time, prior to continuing training.   As soon as she false alerts I pick her up and taking her immediately to her crate.  No conversation.  I am glad that I know her well enough and that I picked up on the behavior immediately.  If we only trained our dogs and did no real life searches we could avoid any poor performance but our working dogs are in unknown situations and we need to observe them and know them well enough so we can address problems immediately.   The only way to get to know your dog is to observe your dog in a training environment where you know exactly where the hides are.

You can incorporate some training into your work, but since you don’t know where the bed bugs are or not you need to keep up with your training.  The Scientific Working Group on Dog and Orthogonal Detector Guidelines (SWGDOG) has studied and set guidelines for training requirements of a working dog.  According to SWGDOG a canine team shall complete a minimum of sixteen (16) hours of training per month to maintain and improve the proficiency level of the team. These guidelines are followed by law enforcement and used in court when cases arise relating to detection dogs. The handler should be keeping a regular training log. It’s essential to keep your dog honest. You need to understand your dog’s body language to determine if there actually are bed bugs in the alerted location. The only way to reinforce accurate detection is regular training.

If I’m out on a long search with no bed bugs I notice my dog’s detailing getting sloppy.  I need to periodically  introduce a vial into longer searches to ensure focus and to keep it fun for her.  Conversely the problem of heavy infestations where the dog starts to realize that she can alert and get fed.  Hey, this is easy!  But if you notice a behavior change, she may be playing you.  I will do more negative searches in training after working heavy infestations so my dog builds her nose time with no finds.  And if there are no bed bugs in a long search I will put out a number of vials in training to reinforce her detailing behavior.  If she expects to find something there she is going to check for it.  I will address this in an upcoming post.

We have begun an Interdisciplinary Working Detection Dog Group since these issues are similar in all detection working dogs.  Please contact me if you are a handler and interested in participating.  We have handlers in human remains detection, narcotics, vapor wake and nose work as well as bed bugs.