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A dogged pursuit of bed bugs

Sara pulled on her leash, sniffing up one side of a cluttered bedroom and snuffling down the other. The black Labrador retriever suddenly sat beside an armchair.

Rich Wilbert, her handler, flipped the chair over and poked at the stuffing and seams. He spotted pin-sized drops of human blood -- clear signs of an infestation of bedbugs in the small apartment.

“Good girl, Sara,” Wilbert said. He fed her a few treats from a bag as a co-worker made a note to treat the room with insecticide. Sara went back to searching for Cimex lectularius, as she does six days a week.

A working dog’s life is not easy. Some canines gain glory by sniffing out bombs, drugs or land mines, but most do less glamorous labor. Beagles hunt home-munching termites, terriers track toxic fumes from Chinese drywall and collies chase Canada geese off golf courses.

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Bedbugs are the latest dirty job. Largely eradicated in the United States after World War II, the tiny, bloodsucking parasites have invaded city after city in the last four years, leaving painful skin welts and pricey pest control bills from Boston to San Francisco.

One result: Many pest control companies -- especially those that use bedbug detection dogs -- are riding high despite the economic recession.

They typically charge $500 to $1,000 to treat a small apartment or office. That buys a trained dog to detect the reddish-brown vermin, heavy applications of sprayed steam and chemicals to kill the insects and their eggs, and a follow-up visit with the dog to make certain the nasty nocturnal varmints are really gone.

Bedbugs hide during the day in wall cracks, behind light switches or in other dark places. But the dogs sniff along baseboards, beds and furniture for the pheromones, the faint chemical odor that the insects emit to signal one another, and then alert the handler of an enemy invasion.

At Action Termite and Pest Control, based in Toms River, N.J., General Manager John Russell said his business had grown 30% this year thanks to Sara, Rex and Cassie, his dogs. He is adding to his 46-member staff and planning to buy a fourth dog.

“The phone has been ringing off the hook,” he said. “We used to get maybe one or two calls a year. Now we get 10 to 15 a day.”

Among the recent jobs: an $80,000 contract to eradicate bedbugs from four apartment blocks owned by the Atlantic City Housing Authority. His dogs also sniffed their way through two office towers in mid-Manhattan and a luxury hotel in Philadelphia.

Two trainers provide most of the dogs used around the country. The men have become fierce rivals in the process.

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Bill Whitstine, who heads the Florida Canine Academy in Safety Harbor, Fla., said he “invented” bedbug dogs about five years ago. He already trained and sold pooches that could sniff out termites, carpenter ants and mold. He even trained dogs to help state environmental officials find endangered snakes and sea turtle eggs.

“I’m known for thinking outside the box,” he said.

His bedbug dogs soon eclipsed his other offerings. Whitstine charges $8,700 for a package deal -- two months’ training for the dog and one week for the handler. He has sold about 100 animals, he said.

“There’s a high demand,” he said. “These are my most popular dogs.”

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His chief competitor, Pepe Peruyero, heads J&K; Canine Academy in High Springs, Fla. He said he had sold about 70 dogs for $9,500 each.

He trains them for four months and teaches them to detect only live bugs. That way, the handler knows an infestation has not moved elsewhere.

“We are the only trainer that does that,” Peruyero said.

In New York, infestations were reported recently in a United Nations building, former President Clinton’s offices, the Penguin Books office, classrooms at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and elsewhere. Handlers used dogs at the U.N. and several other sites to help pinpoint the bugs for fumigators.

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“It can be a very valuable tool,” said Richard Cooper, coauthor of the 266-page “Bed Bug Handbook” and a member of New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s new Bed Bug Advisory Board. “You can work your way through a hotel or a college dorm or a movie theater much more quickly with dogs than just relying on a visual inspection.”

But Gary Alpert, an entomologist at Harvard University who specializes in bedbugs, cautions that some pest control companies use dogs as a gimmick to exploit people’s fears and to charge more money.

“There are a lot of scams out there,” he said.

Because dogs are given a reward if they “alert” for a bedbug, for example, they may alert just to get the food. An unscrupulous or inexperienced handler could easily use the false alarms to charge for unnecessary treatments.

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“You can waste a lot of money very quickly,” Alpert said. “Some handlers have no idea what a bedbug looks like.”

At Bed Bug Solutions Inc. in Des Plaines, Ill., Linda DeVelasco has filled her calendar with appointments for Scooby, her beagle mutt. To avoid a conflict of interest, she sells Scooby’s services independently of local exterminators who actually kill the bugs.

“Otherwise I would find bugs every place I go into,” she said.

No one knows why bedbugs are back. Scientists theorize that the wingless insects hitched a ride on visitors or cargo from abroad, or that they resist pesticide better than their forebears, or even that a new, super-strong strain of household pests has evolved.

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What’s clear is they are hard to eradicate. Bedbugs may survive a year without feeding, and unlike termites and other insects that cluster in colonies, they can create havoc in small numbers. A single female may lay enough eggs to infest an apartment -- and then crawl 100 feet a day to bite neighbors down the hall.

In Washington, the Environmental Protection Agency convened the first National Bed Bug Summit in April. The two-day conference brought together the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Pentagon, state and federal housing officials, experts and exterminators to help fight the invasion.

“A year ago, I thought bedbugs were a thing from a couple of centuries ago or maybe in a children’s nursery rhyme,” New Jersey state Assemblywoman Joan Quigley told the summit. “I had no idea they were a modern scourge.”

Quigley successfully sponsored a bill in the New Jersey Assembly, apparently the nation’s first, that would require landlords to pay for bedbug eradication in most cases or face a fine. The state Senate has not yet taken up the measure.

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On a recent sunny morning at Laurel House in Asbury Park, a once-grand seaside resort, Sara went room to room in a former boarding house now used to house 28 homeless people a block or so from the boardwalk.

“I’ve done public housing for 20 years and never heard of bedbugs until four years ago,” Steve Heisman, who heads the social service agency that runs the facility, said as he followed Sara. “Now they’re public enemy No. 1.”

Heisman requires residents to remove pictures from their walls and to keep their clothes and clutter to a minimum to eliminate places where bugs can hide. But he still calls exterminators back “three times a year, and that’s if I’m lucky,” for $10,000 treatments.

That afternoon, Sara was about 50 miles north in a working-class neighborhood of Jersey City. Wilbert took her to see whether bedbugs had returned to a recently treated three-story apartment building. Out back, someone had painted “Bedbug!” in red on a discarded mattress and crib.

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“We had to throw everything out,” said Saroj Bala, one of the tenants. “It was an utter nightmare. I was being bitten every night.”

She anxiously watched as Sara sniffed through her living room and bedroom. Bala smiled with relief when the dog left without finding any new bugs.

“Wonderful,” she said.

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bob.drogin@latimes.com


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