Delaware News

Ace, pet detective

Local dog has a nose for bedbugs

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When Emily Hanafin goes into trainer mode, she ties a pouch filled with dog food around her waist -- a signal that it's time for Ace the Bedbug Detective to go to work.

Ace, a Jack Russell terrier, sniffs each piece of furniture as Hanafin leads him around the living room on a leash.

"Seek! Seek! Seek!" she tells him.

Ace seeks with his nose -- a quick sniff at each object he passes is sufficient -- and when he reaches an upholstered chair in the corner of the Hanafins' living room, he sits. Ace has found.

"Show me!" Hanafin says.

Ace jabs his head at the chair and looks expectant. Sure enough, the clear glass vial containing bedbugs -- one of several such containers the Hanafins have for training purposes -- is hidden behind the chair.

"Luckily, bedbugs have a strong scent," Hanafin said. "Maybe not to humans, but to dogs."

Ace learned to play the bedbug-sniffing game at Florida Canine Academy in Safety Harbor, Fla., where owner Bill Whitstine also trains dogs to find bombs, drugs, money, weapons, termites, house mold or accelerants.

Hanafin and her husband, Roger, in January spent a long weekend at Whitstine's facility. They chose Ace from among the dogs deemed ready for adoption, then spent several days working with him and attending classes.

The coursework included "obviously, lots about bedbugs," Emily Hanafin said. They also learned how to train Ace at home, how to keep his certification current and how to run a business -- pricing, marketing and advertising.

"They gave us an overwhelming amount of information," she said.

The Hanafins were interested in adopting a dog with a marketable talent that Emily Hanafin could build into a business based at their Delaware home while caring for their 2-year-old daughter.

Whitstine cited speed and accuracy as reasons to employ dogs in the bedbug detection business.

Searching a hotel room for bedbugs takes people 20 minutes or more, and it's easy to miss the tiny creatures, which like to burrow, he said. A dog can check a room in about 21/2 minutes, Whitstine said. What's more, humans must "kind of destroy" the room they're searching; a dog merely walks around, he said.

Most of his dogs are found in Florida shelters, Whitstine said. Many breeds can be taught scent detection, especially beagles, Labrador retrievers, puggles, Jack Russells and other hunting or tracking dogs. The dogs are tested for intelligence, lack of fear and a willingness to ride in cars before more specific training begins.

Whitstine, who charges $9,700 for the dog and training package, said the instruction is part of the deal.

"Even if the dog's great, if you're not making money, it's not great," he said.

Since they brought Ace home, the Hanafins have sent letters to apartment complexes, hotels and universities. They've reached out to pest control companies and other organizations. They may donate Ace's services to a jail or a low-income housing unit, both as a goodwill gesture and as a demonstration of Ace's training.

Not that bedbugs are more likely to turn up in low-income areas than they are in middle class or wealthy neighborhoods, Emily Hanafin said.

"Bedbugs are equal opportunity pests," she said. "Everybody has blood."

Hanafin said prices for Ace's services vary. Some clients would be charged for one visit; from others, she'd expect a yearly contract.

Because a bedbug-sniffing dog must train several times daily -- to keep his skills sharp and to earn his food -- owners keep bugs on hand. The Hanafins purchase their bedbugs from a New York entomologist who charges $3 per bug.

As for feeding the bugs: "My husband does that," Hanafin said. "I don't do it."

"That" is letting bedbugs feed on a little patch of skin. They eat infrequently, and the bites don't cause disease or much distress -- just an itch.

But they must feed on schedule, Hanafin said. Bedbugs go through five life stages, feeding before each one. If a bug misses a feeding, it doesn't advance to the next stage -- so out comes Roger Hanafin's arm.

For some training, the Hanafins use a training wheel with plastic containers attached to each of its six spokes. One of the containers holds bedbugs; the others hold household items such as bits of carpet, insulation and egg shells.

Emily Hanafin spins the wheel, then leads Ace around it, repeating, "Seek! Seek! Seek!" Every time, Ace sits by the container holding the bugs. A command of "show me," and his nose nudges the plastic lid of the correct container.

Ace also locates bug vials hidden around the Hanafins' house. Roger Hanafin often runs the dog through his paces in the morning, then leaves for work without telling Emily where he concealed the vial.

"This is our daily conversation: 'Where did you put the bedbugs?'" Emily Hanafin said.

For more information about Ace or to arrange an appointment, call 614-526-9575 or visit the website acebedbugdetect-ives.com.

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