Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Jeepers Creepers

Another in our 'Working Dog Series'

A working dog's life is not easy. Some canines gain glory by sniffing out bombs, drugs or land mines, but most do less glamorous labor. Beagles hunt home-munching termites, terriers track toxic fumes from Chinese drywall and collies chase Canada geese off golf courses.

Bedbugs are the latest dirty job. Largely eradicated in the United States after World War II, thetiny, bloodsucking parasites have invaded city after city in the last four years, leaving painful skin welts and pricey pest control bills from Boston to San Francisco. 

Sara pulled on her leash, sniffing up one side of a cluttered bedroom and snuffling down theother. The black Labrador retriever suddenly sat beside an armchair.

Rich Wilbert, her handler, flipped the chair over and poked at thestuffing and seams. He spotted pin-sized drops of human blood -- clear signs of an infestation of bedbugs in the small apartment.

"Good girl, Sara," Wilbert said.He fed her a few treats from a bag as a co-worker made a note to treat the room with insecticide. Sara went back to searching for Cimex lectularius, as she does six days a week.
Bedbugs hide during the day in wall cracks, behind light switches or in other dark places. But the dogs sniff along baseboards, beds and furniture for the pheromones,the faint chemical odor that the insects emit to signal one another, and then alert the handler of an enemy invasion.

No one knows why bedbugs are back. Scientists theorize that the wingless insects hitched a ride on visitors or cargo from abroad, or that they resist pesticide better than their forebears, or even that a new, super-strong strain of household pests has evolved.

What's clear is they are hard to eradicate. Bedbugs may survive a year without feeding, and unlike termites and other insects that cluster in colonies, they can create havoc in small numbers. A single female may lay enough eggs to infest an apartment -- and then crawl 100 feet a day to bite neighbors down the hall.