In a prominent New York hotel last month, a uniformed man strode purposefully through the corridors, a beagle mongrel trotting at his side.
‘We look like cops,’ says Carl Massicott with a laugh.
Massicott is in fact an exterminator; his highly trained dog sniffs out bedbugs – the pestilence whose virulent return has been plaguing hotels across the US in recent years. ‘People have thought we were looking for gas leaks, even illegal fruit. No one ever suspects bedbugs.’
In the US, super-powered pesticides like DDT once all-but eradicated bedbugs, the scourge of insects that nest in mattresses and feed on human blood. Increased concerns about the risks these chemicals pose to humans and the environment led to mass bans.
Now it’s thought that in the absence of these chemicals, the bugs are back with a vengeance. As recently as 2002, for example, New York City reported only two infestations; in 2007 there were 6,889.
Hotels are particularly hard-hit, as bugs can be transmitted on clothing, or even luggage.
Massicott runs Advanced K9 Detectives, a specialist extermination company that uses dogs to sniff out pests. News of an infestation can ruin a business predicated on giving punters a good night’s sleep; it helps that Massicott dogs appear innocuous. Massicott says he’s heard of dogs being used to sniff out termites in the past, and thought to apply the skills of his first black-lab mix, Jada, to sniff out bedbugs when there was an epidemic in 2002.
He’s since trained a small army of mutts, all adopted from dogs’ homes. There’s only one requirement: ‘They’ve got to like to hunt,’ he says.
Each young dog is trained for an average of 18 months. Initially they are introduced to the pest’s scent and rewarded with a treat each time they smell the bugs; the process culminates in the dog seeking out that scent on its own.
Each dog is capable of covering 150 hotel bedrooms per day. The procedure is swift; in only a matter of minutes a dog can cover even a large suite, sniffing key areas like box-springs and dust ruffles, and even some places you might not expect to find the pests: ‘I’ve had a dog find them in the telephones and clock radios near beds,’ says Massicott.
‘At a five star resort she found them in a $400 Bose radio.’
Massicott rates his dogs’ detection abilities at around 98 per cent accuracy, though recent studies by the university of Florida have put them at 100 per cent. Factors that may lead to canine error are similar to those that cause humans to err in the workplace: fatigue and over-eagerness to please the boss.
Though a dog can put in eight hours of searching a day, accuracy dwindles after about an hour’s work, unless sufficiently rested between searches. Additionally, in their desire to please their master (and obtain scrumptious rewards) clever canines sometimes falsely report finding bugs.
To prevent this, even adult dogs are continuously re-trained using mock sessions where both live and dead bedbugs are employed. ‘We hide them, so we know where everything is,’ explains Massicott, ‘even if they find a dead bug, there’s no reward.’
Dogs’ sensitive noses can differentiate between not just a living or deceased bedbug, but between adults and their eggs as well.
Massicott serviced over 30 hotels in 2007 alone, along with private apartments, university housing and even cruise ships. Several of his projects have been resorts in the 1,800-bedroom mega-complex range. At $4-$5 per room (approximately £2.50 on average), business is booming and demand seems ever increasing.
‘Business has tripled since I started out [in 2004],’ says Massicott. ‘I only had two dogs. Now I have seven, and I need three more.’