bed bug dog sniffing for bugs in a home

Spending all day looking for bedbugs might sound icky. But don't feel sorry for Roxy or Maggie — they love their job. So does their colleague Marlowe, whose specialty is termites.

"I have to stop them sometimes," Steve Dodge says. "It's a passion. They truly love it."

Roxy, Maggie and Marlowe are pest detection sniffer dogs for ProTech Termite and Pest Control in northern Virginia. Now, you may ask yourself, "How does a dog come to love looking for bugs?" Part of it is training, of course, but another important part is starting with the right dog for the job.

Finding the Right Fit

The dogs definitely have different personalities, says Dodge, one of ProTech's founders, who has been handling detection dogs for 14 years. "Roxy — you get a camera, she'll stop, turn around, sit down and pose for you. She's a diva," he says. "If you were sitting around with Marlowe when he wasn't working, you'd think, this is not a working dog. He's a cuddling lap dog."

But what they have in common is what's important. "They're dogs that are really made for this," Dodge says. And they're mostly found in shelters, where trainers look for the dogs who would drive the average owner crazy — and who'd be going crazy themselves.

"We make jokes that we want the dog to be bouncing off the walls," Dodge says. "That's the dog we want because that's the dog that's got the drive and wants to work."

When checking out a shelter dog, Dodge will take him outside and play, looking for determination and drive: "How long does he want to chase the toy? If you pretend to throw it and hide it behind your back, how long does he continue to look?"

If a dog seems like a good candidate, an evaluation program tests how he reacts to scents in a series of pipes. "You watch his behavior," Dodge says. "Does he sniff each pipe? Does he have a stick-to-it attitude?"

The final test is a double-blind evaluation, where the human testers don't know where the scent is hidden. Not everyone does this, and Dodge says you can see why it's important from the story of a time when his dog was in a test run being conducted by someone else.

"The guy who was the proctor knew where the hides were, behind a picture on the wall," he says. And when Roxy picked up the scent, he gave it away. "He got excited because no other dog could find the hide," Dodge says. "He started kind of making noises and moving."

To be positive the dog isn't reacting to that kind of cue rather than what he's smelling, Dodge's company will even video the tests so only cameras are in the room with the dog.

Marlowe the dog sniffs for bedbugs

On the Job

Dodge has his dogs give what's called a passive alert — they sit and put their nose on the source of the odor. He prefers this to a response like barking or scratching. "You might be in a hotel where you don't want the dog to be barking, and I don't want him scratching wallpaper or furniture," he says. "I'd just as soon he sit down quietly."

For the same reason, he prefers to use food rewards rather than a toy reward — a quick snack is more unobtrusive than even a subdued play session.

bed bugs

While working, it's important for the handler to keep the dog's enthusiasm up. For the property owner, not finding bugs is good news, but for the dog, it's kind of boring. So Dodge will hide some scent to give the dog something to find — and sometimes to kind of fake him out.

 "A lot of times I like to do it in an area I've just searched and there's nothing," he says. When the dog goes back in and finds the hidden scent, Dodge says, "They go, 'Oh, shoot, I missed that! I better look harder next time!'"

And at the end of the day, they'll get a bigger reward. "You want to end on an up," he says.

It's Not Just Dogs

Dogs need no help to find an odor, but that's not all there is to the job — there's also communication. And that's where the human has to be skilled. "If the handler doesn't have good handling skills, he can cue the dog and start getting him to start alerting to things that aren't about the odor," Dodge says.

Sometimes a handler will jump the gun. "The dog just stops for a second and looks up, and the handler thinks it's an alert and he rewards," he says. "So now the dog thinks, I can just look up and get a treat."

Or sometimes a handler will pull the dog away from a scent, thinking he knows where the bugs are. Big mistake. "Don't think," he says. "Let the dog get in the odor, keep your eyes on the dog, watch what it's doing, learn the dog's behavior."

Patience is critical, he says. "No interference. Trust the dog. Let the dog work."

The Human Side

Finding bedbugs or termites means giving the dogs a treat, but it also means giving humans bad news. But Dodge looks on the bright side. "With termites, I may be able to find it early and save them a lot of money and damage," he says. "Same with bedbugs — we may have found it weeks before it's visible, and they can get it under control before it spreads."

And it's cool to see your dog's amazing abilities work, even when someone doubts them. Dodge remembers a termite search he did on a house that had just been renovated. "Marlowe alerted, and the builder said, 'I just put that wall up. Something's not right. I'm opening it up.'"

He took down the brand-new wall and, on the cinder block behind it, they found the tubes that termites build for shelters. Dodge says, "We broke the tube, and there were live termites in there."