Dogs vs. Bugs: The Benefits of Using Canines for Pest Detection

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Dogs are man’s best friend–in more ways than one. They’re also one of our best working companions. And while most people think of seeing-eye dogs or police dogs as working dogs, dogs can also go to work in a different (and slightly more gross) setting.

The past several years have seen skyrocketing demand for bed bug sniffing dogs, the most dramatic increase in demand for canine scent detection since the leap in demand for bomb-sniffing dogs after 9/11.

Why use canines for pest detection? Because if your Utah home has a potential infestation, there’s no one better suited to the job.

What are Bed Bugs?

To understand why dogs are man’s best friend and bug’s worst nightmare, let’s do a quick recap of bed bugs. Because despite that cutesy rhyme your parents told you as a child, bed bugs are a nightmare to any homeowner or inhabitant.

Bed bugs are small, brown, wingless bugs, having a distinct size and shape of an apple seed. They were almost a thing of the past in the 1940s and 50s thanks to improved hygiene practices and increased pesticide use, but they’ve staged a comeback in the last 10 years.

They’re often confused with cockroaches in many respects. For example, unlike cockroaches, bed bugs don’t have wings and thus cannot fly (unless you put a blow dryer behind them, at which point they can apparently fly about 1.2 meters). If left to crawl on their own, they can cover about a meter per minute (a little over three feet).

Bed bugs get their name from their favorite hiding place: beds. Mattresses, box springs, blankets, pillows, headboards–it’s all the same to a bed bug. This is their favorite hiding place because it’s also the best place to access their food source: you.

What They Eat

One of the most popular myths about bed bugs is that they’re attracted to filth, like cockroaches. That’s not actually true. Unlike cockroaches, which will eat pretty much anything, bed bugs only care about one food source.

Blood. Mammalian and avian blood, to be precise.

You, your kids, Fido, the cat–it’s all the same to a bed bug. If it’s warm-blooded, a bed bug will happily help itself. Although it’s known that they prefer human blood.

A popular myth says they can survive for a year without a blood meal. At room temperature, this isn’t the case. Bed bugs can generally survive about two to three months at normal room temperature without a blood meal. However, they are cold blooded, so if the temperature drops, so does their metabolism, so a well-fed bug in a cooler environment might be able to survive much longer.

We said earlier that bed bugs get their name because they like to hide in beds. That’s because it’s easiest for them to access their host (without getting swatted and crushed). They inject a minor anesthetic when they bite to keep the host from waking up and will feed for about 10 minutes or so.

In summary: they’re tiny vampire insects that hide in your house and furniture and drink your blood while you sleep.

Where They Hide

Bed bugs get their name because of their favorite hiding place. However, while they’re picky about their food, they’re much less picky about their hiding place.

The problem with bed bugs isn’t necessarily killing them. Unlike cockroaches (which might die if you smash them with a hammer, no guarantees) or ticks (which you should kill with fire and extreme prejudice) bed bugs are relatively easy to kill.

If you can catch them, that is.

Bed bugs are the ultimate rent-free squatter. They like to hide anywhere that grants them easy access to their food source, but they’ll settle for anywhere that might reasonably grant access to their next meal.

Your couch, for example. Or your chair. Or your carpet. Or a nail hole in your wall. Or your kitchen table. Or the edge where your carpet meets the baseboards. They’re experts at hiding, and if you want to catch a bed bug infestation, you have to kill all of them, which could be hundreds of bugs.

The World Through a Dog’s Nose

This is where dogs come in. You see, man’s best friend has a critical advantage over the person at the other end of the leash: their nose.

Dogs are Olympic sniffers. Their sense of smell is anywhere between 10,000 to 100,000 times stronger than a human’s sense of smell. To put that in perspective, if a human could see for about a third of a mile with equal accuracy, a dog could see more than 3,000 miles away and still see just as well.

But unlike humans, who have evolved to rely heavily on sight and hearing, dogs evolved to prioritize their sense of smell first. And it’s more than just scent detection–dogs are incredibly good at detecting even minute odor discriminations. In exact terms, they can detect odors in parts per trillion.

What does that mean in human terms?

Picture your cup of coffee. You could detect if a teaspoon of sugar was added to your coffee. A dog could detect a teaspoon of sugar if it was added to two combined Olympic swimming pools. They could also detect one rotten apple out of roughly two million barrels of apples.

Why a Dog Trumps a Human in Bed Bug Detection

Dogs trump humans in bed bug detection primarily thanks to biology.

Where humans possess about six million olfactory receptors, dogs have about 300 million. They also devote a great deal more processing power to scent than humans, with about 40 times more of their brain devoted to scent perception and processing than a human brain.

This is because dogs have evolved to rely on their noses as their primary avenue of survival. Dogs can track and hunt prey with their noses, avoid predators by catching an early whiff, scent potential mates, and smell their puppies.

Dogs also have an olfactory organ humans lack: the vomeronasal organ, which allows them to pick up on pheromones (the chemicals unique to each animal species advertising mating readiness and sex-related details like a neon sign).

Dogs Smell in 3D

Remember learning about human vision in science class? We see one complete, uninterrupted three-dimensional world, but our eyes collect two different streams of vision and compile it into one three-dimensional view.

Dogs can do the same thing, but with their noses.

Where humans can see independently through each eye and use each input stream for one complete image, dogs can smell independently through each nostril and use different odor profiles to create a three-dimensional perspective of where scents are located in space. But since odors also get left behind, they can also smell where an odor has been.

How Does a Dog Find Bed Bugs?

So, how does a dog find bed bugs?

It’s pretty simple, actually: it smells them.

It’s usually difficult to determine where the bed bugs are because the smell is everywhere, think about blindfolding yourself and walking into a coffee shop and someone asking where the coffee smell is, well it’s everywhere. It’s generally hard to pinpoint and detect bed bugs because most humans can only smell bed bugs when there’s so many of them that the smell is significantly amplified (it’s a sickly sweet smell).

But remember, dogs are lightyears better at using their noses than humans, which means dogs can be trained to sniff out the odor of bed bugs. Just like a dead animal smells different than a live animal, dead bed bugs smell different than alive bed bugs and dogs can smell the difference.

In addition, bed bugs (like all animals) give off a unique pheromone signature. Unlike humans, dogs have a sense organ that allows them to pick up that scent (it’s what allows them to scent potential mates).

How Dogs are Trained in Scent Detection

Dogs already have all the tools they need to pick up on bed bugs and other pests. The trick isn’t teaching a dog how to smell a bed bug. They can already do that by accident.

The trick is teaching dogs how to look for bed bugs as a job. Or rather, teaching a dog how to work with a handler so that they know when they’re expected to do a job and look for a specific scent. In other words, you’re looking for a working dog.

Finding the Right Fit

Every working dog has a different personality. Some are cuddle monsters off the job, some are divas, some are aloof, some have sass. But they all have one personality trait in common: they all want to work.

Trainers tend to look for scent dogs in shelters. Most of the time, the perfect scent dog is the type of dog that would drive the average owner crazy and would go crazy with boredom as a house pet. Trainers joke that they look for the dogs that bounce off the walls, because those are often the dogs that have the drive to be trained for a job.

Once trainers identify a potential sniffer, they put the dog through a series of tests to learn about their personalities and approach to problem-solving. The first test is simple: play. A trainer takes a dog outside and sees how long they want to chase a toy, or how long the dog continues to look if you pretend to throw a toy.

From there, trainers test how a dog reacts to scents in various pipes. This isn’t so much a test of their sense of smell (the dog already has the right tools). It’s a test of behavior. They’re looking for dogs that will keep looking for a scent and are willing to sniff every pipe to look for something new.

The final test is a double-blind evaluation. A scent is hidden in a room, but human proctors don’t know where the tester has concealed it. Some companies will put a dog in the room with just cameras to ensure that the dog is only reacting to what they smell, not to a human tester’s reactions.

Dogs on the Job

Once a trainer has found a dog with the right personality to be trained as a scent dog, the training begins in earnest.

Dogs are taught to hone their scent skills and use their natural drive to identify a scent. They’ll learn what cues to look for from their handler to know that they have a job to do, and they’ll learn to associate doing their job with a positive reward. Some trainers use toy rewards, others use food rewards.

The biggest element of training a scent dog is communication with their handler. A dog may be able to smell the right odor, but if they can’t communicate with their handler, the humans in the room are still just guessing.

Dogs are taught to give either active alerts (barking, scratching at the right spot) or passive alerts (sitting and putting their nose on the source of the odor). Trainers who use dogs for pest checks in hotel rooms often prefer passive alerts so that the dog doesn’t disturb other guests or damage the room by scratching.

There is also a certain degree of human skill, in that the handler has to know when to let the dog do what they do best. Unskilled handlers may pull a dog away from a scent or teach the dogs to look for cues from the handler as much as scent.

The best handlers are those that step back and let the dog get the scent. Patience and trust in the dog is critical.

The Best Dog Breeds for Bed Bug Detection

All dogs are excellent sniffers, but certain breeds have been cultivated specifically to hone their noses. In addition, because training a scent dog is as much about personality as natural talent, certain breeds are better suited to the job than others.

The average lap dog won’t do the trick. For pest detection, you need a working breed, the kind that is ill-suited to the average pet owner but perfectly suited to doing a job.

The best working breeds for scent dogs include:

  • Beagles
  • Bloodhounds
  • Basset Hounds
  • German Shepherds
  • Belgian Malinois
  • Labrador Retrievers
  • Golden Retrievers
  • Coonhounds
  • Pointers

You probably recognize a few breeds on this list as hunting dogs or working dogs. German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois are wildly popular as a working dog among police and military and can work just as well in other varieties of scent detection.

That said, any dog with the right senses and the right personality can make an excellent pest sniffer, so don’t turn your nose up at a dachshund, terrier, or a hardy shelter mutt.

Advantages of Using Dogs in Pest Detection

Between natural talent and a hard-working personality, dogs are a pest detector’s best friend. Dogs aren’t brought in to exterminate pests. They’re brought in for a different function–to determine whether extermination is necessary.

Here are a few key advantages to bringing in canines at the earliest stage of the game.

Accuracy

First and foremost, dogs are more accurate at identifying bed bugs than humans.

Humans can’t smell bed bugs and bed bugs are expert hiders, which means humans rely primarily on sight to identify an infestation. The problem is that by the time you actually see a bed bug, the infestation has already significantly grown and spread.

Dogs take the guesswork out of finding an infestation. When paired with a skilled handler, bed bug sniffing dogs can zero in precisely on a bed bug’s hiding place and nesting site.

They don’t need sight–not when they have a nose that’s far more sensitive. A dog that can detect a teaspoon of sugar in two Olympic swimming pools is more than capable of identifying a bed bug hiding in a room.

The key is to work with a skilled handler to let the dog do its job. Our canine teams are the picture of expert professionalism. Our dogs know how to sniff out bugs, and our handlers know how to get the dog to do what the dog does best.

Detection of All Life Stages

Better still, a dog’s expert sniffer means that they can detect bed bugs at all stages of life, even when the bug is small enough that the human eye wouldn’t notice unless you were paying very close attention.

Remember, dogs can smell pheromones. All animals give off pheromones at any age, and bed bugs are no different. And that means if a bed bug passes through a room, it leaves behind pheromone traces that a dog can identify.

Fast Inspection

Visual inspections take a while. For all that humans are good at compartmentalizing and processing visual data, human eyes visually inspecting a house or hotel can only go so fast.

Dogs rely on their noses, not their eyes, which means dogs have the advantage here.

With eyesight, we can only see what’s in our line of sight. But smell is different. Smell can travel through doors and walls and windows, even for our human noses. For a dog, it’s even stronger.

Plus, because a dog knows exactly what scent to look for, it can make quick work of finding that scent at its job sites. It doesn’t need to waste time in every room–if the smell isn’t there, there’s no need to investigate further.

This means that a dog can inspect a property for bugs far faster and far more accurately than a human inspector looking on their own.

Protecting Your Reputation

Picture police dogs. Picture scent hounds used in manhunts, bomb sniffing dogs, chemical sniffing dogs. Dogs are more than just a companion or a convenient helper–they’re expert sniffers who can be trained to leverage their skills, and they’re so good at it that courts recognize the work of trained and certified scent dogs as scientific evidence.

Pest detection dogs are no different.

If you’re worried about a pest infestation at your home, you don’t want to instigate neighborhood panic and you don’t want to alert the neighborhood gossip. And if you’re worried about pests at your place of business, you don’t want your business reputation tarnished by a potential infestation.

Scent dogs work quickly and accurately to identify the problem with minimal disruption to your property. You’ll know exactly what the problem is and where it’s located, which means our exterminators can make quick work of fixing the problem for you.

Saving Money

Finally, the precision and efficiency of scent detection dogs allows you to save money.

Because scent detection dogs are so good at their jobs, you can focus your pest extermination efforts where it really matters and pay for treatments only when you need them. Plus, if you’ve had a treatment and want to make sure the pests are wiped out, a scent dog can help check that there are no more bugs in your walls or furniture.

When combined with our expert bed bug elimination technicians, that infestation doesn’t stand a chance.

Protecting Your Utah Home

Using canines for pest detection offers you an invaluable peace of mind that you can’t find anywhere else.

Our Utah team, including our canine team, are proud to offer top-of-the-line service, state of the art equipment, and unmatched professionalism. We’re bed bug experts. We know what it takes to find and eliminate an infestation, no matter how big or small, down to the very last bug.

So if you’re worried that you have a bed bug infestation, the real question is: why would you go anywhere else?

If your home needs expert bed bug extermination, we’re ready to help. Get in touch today and let us know how we can help you reclaim your home from pests.

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