Imagine only eating as a reward for hard work. Now imagine that hard work involves searching for bed bugs — oval, reddish-brown, wingless insects that tend to inhabit beds or other nooks and crannies in an unsuspecting victim’s home.
Hardly an incentive to eat, but it works well for Radar, a 2-year-old beagle mix from Newton who is employed by Preferred Pest Control in Des Moines.
“He’s up to 98 percent accuracy in finding bed bugs,” said Brad Smith, fully accredited entomologist and president of Preferred Pest Control. “He’s the only dog in Iowa that’s trained to ... only alert to live bed bugs, down to one egg, which is about 1 millimeter big.”
Beagles are naturals when it comes to Radar’s job due to their “searching mentality,” Smith said. Other dogs commonly used to find bed bugs are schnauzers and Jack Russell terriers.
Radar is one of many rescue dogs trained by J&K Canine Academy, a Florida-based dog training facility that describes itself as the “gold standard in the entomology canine detection field with the only termite and bed bug programs in the world with scientifically proven results.” (www.jkk9.com)
Smith notes that while there are other canines trained to find the parasitic bugs, Radar is the only National Entomology Scent Detection Canine Association-certified dog in the state. Both the dog and his handler, Newton resident Justin Etter, must apply for re-certification through NESDCA annually, which includes a test to sniff out living bed bugs.
“They (NESDCA members) select four rooms that we’re going to search,” Etter said. “In two of the rooms, they hide live bed bugs. Anywhere in the room is fair game. In the other two, they hide distracters — dead bugs, sheddings, droppings. He’s trained only to indicate on the scent of live bed bugs. If he indicates on the dead bed bugs, he automatically fails.”
Radar alerts Etter when he finds live bed bugs by pawing or scratching at the area. He is then rewarded with a treat.
To keep the dog’s sniffing skills sharp (and his tummy full), Radar must be trained a minimum of twice per day — usually an hour before the normal work day and an hour after. To continue Radar’s training, Etter keeps a bed bug “farm” at home with a combination of live and dead bugs.
“I have to raise bed bugs because he only indicates on live bed bugs, or the scent and odor of live bed bugs or viable eggs,” Etter said. “Right now, I have them in a bug container and I put a screen over them. I have them in three individual containers.”
Smith said his clients love having Radar check their apartments, homes, hospitals or other places for bed bug infestations because he’s fast and efficient. With traditional methods of searching for the parasites, “We would have to flip mattresses, open drawers — you really invade a person’s living area,” he said. “So, we’ve reduced the searching time from maybe an hour per apartment to two or three minutes. People are very happy with him.”
The first sign of a bed bug infestation is the appearance of small brownish or reddish spots on mattresses or bed sheets.
“These are bed bug droppings and blood spots,” because the parasites feast on exposed skin Smith said in a video on his website, www.preferredpest.com. “Also, heavy infestations may result in an odor described as sweet smelling. Bed bug bites, which are actually entry points of their blood-drawing beaks, often result in red itchy welts which appear as a red dot with a lighter ring around them.”
To avoid full-blown infestations, Smith said many apartment complex owners, home owners, hospitals and even funeral homes are calling for Radar to check their property as a precautionary measure.
“I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and bed bugs have really only come about in the last five or six years in our area,” Smith said. “Last year they made up half of our revenues, and the year before it was less than 1 percent, almost not even on the radar at all, and now it’s literally half of our work. I’ve hired four full-time people just to treat bed bugs everyday.”
He even decided this week to apply for another scent detection dog from J&K Canine Academy. The dogs don’t come cheap — Radar cost over $10,000 — but they’re well worth the money and time spent on training if they can help Iowans avoid parasite infestations.
Radar doesn’t seem to mind working every day, either.
“When he’s sitting at home he kinda lays around or mopes around,”Etter said, “but when he’s at work he gets excited.”