New Haven Register DERBY, Conn.—Bedbugs can find their way into all sorts of furnishings, not just bedding.
That's when Derby residents William and Connie Steeves and their trained Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Gracie, will come to the rescue.
The couple takes Gracie to discreetly visit hotels, assisted-living facilities, apartment buildings, college dormitories, shelters, residences and anywhere she is needed to search for infestations of the tiny pests.
The work is confidential, and they don't use uniforms or marked cars.
"People aren't going to tell other people that they have bedbugs," William Steeves said.
The Steeveses recently established Canine Bed Bug Locators LLC.
Dr. Gale E. Ridge, an entomologist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven, said there are about 10 teams of bedbug-sniffing dogs and handlers in Connecticut.
"The handlers go for some intense training," she said. "There's an element of talent" among the dogs who sniff for bedbugs.
Ridge said there has been a huge increase in the bedbug population in Connecticut in recent years.
"It's an underreported, serious public nuisance issue," she said. "There's a social stigma, and culturally we're not prepared to deal with them."
The growth in the numbers of bedbugs is due in part to increased international travel, use of less powerful pesticides than in the past, and a lack of awareness, Ridge said.
Bedbugs are nocturnal pests that feed on human blood, William Steeves said, and they find people in their beds at night. But they often live in desks or dressers or couches, and lay eggs in furniture.
An adult bedbug is no more than a quarter-inch in size. When they suck a person's blood, bedbugs get enough nourishment for at least six months, William Steeves said.
Gracie graduated from the Florida Canine Academy in Tampa, Steeves said. Dogs have been trained for many years to detect bombs, drugs, mold and more, and bedbugs are now added to the list of things dogs can find with their keen sense of smell.
Gracie was there for 2½ months earlier this year. The last five days, the Steeveses joined her for the training.
Gracie has joined a select group of canines with her new skills. William Steeves said there are less than 150 dogs nationwide that are trained to find bedbugs.
"We train her every day," Steeves said. "When she hits on a bedbug she'll sit," he said, and he gives her a treat as a reward.
"She loves to go to work. When I say, Let's go to work,' she gets excited," Steeves said. "I give her a (15- to 20-minute) break every 45 minutes" when on a bedbug search.
"Hotels use exterminators, but a lot of these bedbugs learn to hide from the exterminator," Steeves said.
They can smell the chemicals, Steeves said, and burrow deeper into furniture. They can't fly, but will use a building's ventilation system to travel.
Connie Steeves said, "If you can locate it, you can treat it." She said an infestation can happen in the cleanest of buildings. The couple said they could not divulge any of the locations where they have worked.
Businesses such as hotels can save money by having bedbug locations pinpointed by a trained dog. Only the infested areas need to be treated with pesticides, the couple said.
William Steeves demonstrated Gracie's bedbug-finding capabilities inside his house recently.
He put Gracie on a leash and told her they were going to work. "Seek," he said.
He walked her around a wooden board with six spokes coming from it. Each spoke had a plastic container at the end of it, and one of the containers held a glass salt shaker with bedbugs inside.
When Gracie reached the container, she sat down, pointed her nose at it and looked up at Steeves, to alert him of the pests. He rewarded her with a few treats and positive feedback.
Steeves said he purchased the bedbugs to use in training Gracie from an entomologist who breeds them.
"A dog's sense of smell is a thousand times stronger than a human's," Steeves said. And a dog trained to locate bedbugs will be accurate 97 percent of the time, he said.