Are Bedbug-Sniffing Dogs Accurate?

bedbug-sniffing dog

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As bedbugs continue their spread across the U.S. and other developed countries, more and more pest control companies are turning to bedbug-sniffing dogs to search for these tiny, often-elusive bugs. But, how accurate are the noses of these dogs? Should you spend the thousands of dollars that can be charged for eliminating bedbugs–based on the nose of a dog?

For the majority of cases, the answer is yes. But “majority” is not always, and unless you’ve got a couple of thousand dollars to spare on the roll of a die, it’s best to ask the pest control professional a few questions and require a bit more evidence before you put your signature on the line for treatment.

ABC’s 20/20 aired a segment exploring the effectiveness of canine scent detection teams for bed bugs. For the segment, a 20/20 team staged a New York City-area home which was certified to be free from bed bugs by two entomologists, Paul Bello, and Lou Sorkin. The “homeowner” (an actor) asked 11 pest control professionals with bedbug-sniffing dogs to inspect her home for bedbugs. Of the 11, 7 of the bedbug PC professional/bedbug dog teams found the home to be bedbug-free. But the other 4 dogs “alerted,” signaling that they had found bedbugs.

A number of reasons for the alerts were possible, including anything from a general mistake to the fact that the dogs were rewarded with treats, so may simply have wanted the treat. (See Pavlov’s Dog.) In fact, studies have found that 15 percent of the time, bedbug-sniffing dogs will smell the bugs where there were none.

Require Evidence of Bedbugs

Thus, regardless of the reason, the advice that homeowners should take away from this is to require additional, solid evidence of bedbugs (or any pest for that matter) before agreeing to pay for their elimination.

  1. Require visual evidence. Ask the pest control professional to do his/her own inspection and show you a bedbug (alive or dead), or at least solid evidence/signs of their presence.
  2. Ask for a “second opinion,” that is, ask that a second bedbug-sniffing dog be used to see if it detects bedbugs. (This is not always effective as the dogs could have been trained the same, or a smell which threw off the first dog could also cause the second dog to make a mistake as well.)
  3. Request that traps be set in the area where dogs alerted to the presence of bedbugs. If bedbugs are present, and the traps are properly placed, bedbugs should be caught and evidence proven.
  4. Ask to see the pest control technician’s current, independent, third-party certification, which is recommended by NPMA in accordance with guidelines outlined in the Minimum Standards for Canine Bed Bug Detection Team Certification. 

National Pest Management Association Recommendations

The National Pest Management Association (NPMA) advocates the use of “specially trained canine scent detection teams,” stating, “Because of their abilities, these teams can be particularly useful in certain circumstances, such as when bed bugs are suspected but no live bugs or viable eggs are found through visual inspection.” However, the association also cautions that “While canine scent detection teams have been known to be effective, pest control professionals should not rely on them 100 percent to determine the presence of bed bugs.”

NPMA has also published bedbug management guidance for the pest control industry developed by industry professionals, regulators, academics and entomologists. The association has made the document, Best Management Practices for Bed Bugs, available to consumers and recommends that the guidelines be followed closely by all licensed pest professionals.

Additionally, NPMA recommendations to pest control professionals, include guidance that if the bedbug dog alerts to a bedbug scent, “the handler or pest management professional should confirm the alert prior to making a treatment or recommendation of treatment. Specifically, the handler or a pest management professional should visually inspect the area to confirm the presence of an active infestation or utilize a second canine team.”

Bedbug-sniffing dogs can be very beneficial in the detection of bedbugs, but because there is no way for a homeowner to know what training the dog has had or its reliability in detection, evidence of bedbug presence should always be requested prior to a treatment being made.