In a posh hotel in downtown D.C., Dixie, a beagle mix, is sniffing out bed bugs. She can find them in walls, under carpets, and mixed up with cockroaches inside a spinning training device. Mattresses, the most common hiding place for these seed-size suckers of human blood, pose little challenge.
“She only gets fed if she finds a bed bug,” says her trainer and handler, Blaine Lessard, as he reaches into his belted pouch for a piece of kibble.
She seems kinda skinny, I say, and wonder if this incentive-based feeding is providing all of Dixie’s nutritional needs. “Well, these kinds of dogs do run lean,” he counters. And, in truth, Dixie’s perfectly energetic and beagle-like as she follows Lessard’s command—-Seek!—-to sniff the room’s perimeter.
The hotel room is clean. The bug Dixie keeps hitting on is inside the big wheel sitting on the floor. It spans about four feet in diameter with spokes that end in plastic containers, each of which holds either a bed bug or some other scent-giving item designed to throw Dixie off.
Since she’s trained exclusively on bed bugs her entire life—-about nine months—-she is rarely, if ever, thrown off. “I have complete confidence in her,” says Lessard, who once witnessed Dixie pointing him to a hotel closet, even though he could find no evidence of a bug. She did the same thing in the room directly above and in another room directly above that one. A technician finally found a relatively small infestation inside the wall.
Dixie’s training began at the Florida Canine Academy before she moved in with Lessard and his family on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Both Lessard and his beagle-mix are in the employ of Western Pest Services, an extermination outfit with 24 offices, mostly in the eastern U.S. The dog is part of Western’s preventive market: If she finds a bug or two, the company’s pitch is that you can nip that problem before it becomes a full-on infestation. If she doesn’t find anything, well, go ahead and go to sleep without waking up with that creepy feeling you’ve got bugs in your sheets.
Her territory covers D.C. and Baltimore, but she’ll go as far as Virginia Beach and Philadelphia. She does need to get fed, after all. Prices start at $300 and go up from there depending on the type of building, how many rooms it has, and how long it takes Dixie’s nose to cover the premises. According to Lessard, she can cover 120 hotel rooms in one day of work.
He says he knows of “maybe one” other bug-sniffing dog in the D.C. region; an Internet search only pulled up Western’s dog service. In NYC NY BedBug Dogs says it’s been in business for 40 years.
According to Western Pest Services, the customer base here, which also includes hospitals, nursing homes, college dorms, apartment houses, and single-family homes, is starting to pick up. The other uptick comes from the bed bugs themselves. There are simply more of them.
The National Pest Management Association says that since 2000, bed-bug complaint calls have increased 71 percent. Every state and the District has had an outbreak, according to the Centers for Disease Control, although the CDC doesn’t have an accurate accounting; every municipality handles the problem differently.
In D.C., anecdotal evidence—-including the creepy-crawly cover story we ran about bed bugs in Logan Circle and elsewhere—-suggests the problem’s getting more serious. In March, the local Dept. of Health organized its first bed bug summit. There’s also a Web site to register local infestations.
So what’s happened? Why does this pest now need specially-trained dogs and DOH summits? It’s actually a fairly recent problem. After World War II, the bed bug in the United States was pretty much a nonentity. DDT eradicated it. But DDT isn’t an acceptable pesticide for reasons illuminated by Rachel Carson, among others. As more people traveled the world, bringing back these notorious little hangers-on, colonies grew and they also grew resistant to common treatments.
Nowadays, says Lessard, “if you’ve one or two bugs in a room, you’re done.” And finding one or many? It has nothing to do with cleanliness. Five-star hotels fall victim. OCD clean freaks get them. Once your home’s infested, two of the more common ways exterminators will treat your home is with freezing chemicals or heat; a friend in D.C. recently vacated her home so that technicians could blast the place with space heaters. It appears to have taken care of the problem.
One solution not to try? Diesel fuel around the bed. For more about that, read our cover story. Got a solution or a bed bug story of your own? Let us know in comments.
Photographs by City Paper Staff Photographer Darrow Montgomery