An interview with Rick Effaldana:
Recently, I and one of our finest K9 dogs (Walter) had the opportunity to check a 37 foot carver yacht for bedbugs.
Once we arrived on scene, and got onto the boat dock, Walter walked in, not intimidated, only curious. As he walked onto the boat, his head snapped to the left; he sat and alerted to me that there was indeed an infestation in the area. I proofed the dog to verify that it was indeed bedbugs, and within a few seconds, got confirmation that indeed the yacht had bedbugs on board.
Walter was 9 months old when I sent him to be trained. He was young. When he came back 4 months later from training school, I took another month and trained him in different environments. I did a lot of general scent recognition with him using a specialized training wheel. Like the other dogs on our team, Walter is almost always ready to work in new environments
This boat story above brings out a very important point that I would like to stress: When detecting bedbugs, we always prove by doing a visual inspection. This way we understand why and how the dog alerts. If we cannot locate the insect, we seek for – at very least – the evidence of bedbug(s) having been there, through traces such as fecal matter and shedded skins.
The goal of using a dog to detect bedbugs is to find the problem before it escalates to an increased presence. At the beginning there might be just a small cluster, or even a single bug. In the case of the yacht incident there was enough infestation of bedbugs to justify two treatments, and then a follow up inspection to verify that the boat was now safe.
Our Training Process
(The following is an ongoing regimen of training exercises that we at Dana K9 administer to our Scent Detection Dogs. For an objective comparison, please go to www.iaocpi.org, to see a detailed process that all qualified bedbug companies adhere to, such as our own.)
Train the way you work, and work the way you train. Here’s how we do it…
Step 1 – Scent recognition: This part is a simple process. You have training boxes or a training wheel, which is a lazy Suzy with six cups at the end. We will put a live bedbug in one of those cups so the dog cannot see the actual vial. If we are using training boxes, we will keep them three feet apart. We then bring the dog in and guide him to boxes.
The bedbug dog has to use the proper alert. In most cases the dog will point with his nose or paw. At that time, it is acceptable to award the dog with a toy or food.
Step 2 – Dead bedbugs placement: Food. popcorn. Different odors like perfumes, hand creams, cleaning fluid (nothing that harms the dog), using a small amount on paper towel.
It’s important to not stay with the same routine all the time. Much like exercise, always keep things changing up to improve performance. When training with other dogs, some of the obstacles that we encounter is something known as a false alert – for instance the dog will sit and alert that there is a bedbug in the area. Another obstacle is when we come to a location where all the people within a building may not have a bite, but a rash…and after an arduous search, it turns out it the rash is merely poison ivy. In a recent case similar to this, during process of elimination we figured out that the dog had been alerting to a generic cleaner. Because dog was rewarded multiple times that he detected those poison ivy hand creams or lotion, he was being indirectly retrained to alert to a non-target scent.
This is why it is so important to proof your dog and do a visual inspection.Within our training program, we have a large section of our training that is considered distractions training. We will take a bunch of little boxes, plastic boxes, different colors. And I’ll put any different types of odors that I can find I each box. One of them will have a vial of bedbugs in it.
Then we throw them out on the floor randomly and let the dog search. The dog will be naturally very very curious, because it is being stimulated with all those other odors. We will then tell the dog to search and wait. He is only rewarded when he alerts to the proper plastic box, with the right scent. Of course. this is just one way we do distraction training.
Here’s another method of performing distraction training. We place only 1-2 bedbugs in a vial. Obviously the vial will now smell like a bedbug. When you get 150-200 bedbugs, the odor is much stronger from just 1-2. The smaller amount sharpens their senses. On the flip side, we will then train the dogs over clusters of 100-200 bedbugs.
I recall a visual inspection at one location, where we flipped the sheets of a bed and saw hundreds of these bedbugs. To me, that was the perfect proving ground for our dogs to text their skills, had the visual inspection not been conducted yet. If the dogs are not subjected to a real life environment, the accuracy rate will drop. This is the importance of the visual inspection.
The way one enhances the accuracy is to do short training sessions during the day, in different environments.
Training Type 1: Distraction Training: Another form of distraction training we do is with pet hair. Sometimes I’ll get a certain amount of dog and cat hair from a dog groomer, put it in a stocking and drag it around a training facility, in a basement office, wherever. Theses dogs have a drive to find things, which makes them good scent detection dogs. We capitalize on that. So when they sniff out the hair, they are going to do their best to seek out that animal.
One of the things we’ve come across in the canine industry in our training seminars that we attend, some handlers are getting duped by their dogs – tricked. The dogs look like it is searching and doing an intense search. Now dog doesn’t alert to the scent of the bedbug, because he is keen to the smell of the dog or cat. Only way to overcome is to train with the scent of various animals. That way they will still alert.
Training Type 2: Environmental Training: Another form of training is environmental training. You want to train in the environment you are mostly going to work in. We do work for bus companies, to ensure that commuters are not being subject to bedbugs. But before we agreed to the contract for performing bus inspections.We requested that we use their buses to observe how dog alerts differently in this new environment. Now we can see exactly how the dog is alerting. Because of this, I can ask the company to set perimeters. I ask the company that we need to know wind and drift. The point is, every detail is observed to the best of our ability, in order to get the highest rate of accuracy.
That’s why we train in the environment that we work in.
We work for a moving storage facility. Again, prior to the work performed there, we took three days and trained in that facility to find out how the dog was going to alert, where the bedbug would be if it is going to alert, and when the dog will alert.
Because of the multiplicity of locations we train we can accurately certify warehouses, buses, moving companies, movie theaters, and many other types of environments.
Training Type 3 – Search patterns training: take the dog in the environment where there are no bedbugs, do detailed searches based on tapping in certain locations of the home, apartment or hotel.
Step 3 – Consistency: The dogs eat as a reward. Their reward is only given when they find bedbugs. Work and training are totally separate. They don’t eat like a regular pet. They get hand fed every day.
Rest assured the dogs are treated well. For instance, there are exceptional days, called dog days. They are not technically working, but they will still get their food all at once. To maintain the consistency of being rewarded for a correct alert, we still make them sniff a bedbug – then give them their cup of food.
At the end of a job, we take out a toy and play with the dog. And at the end of the day, that dog is energetic and happy. This is a very important part of the relationship. Therefore when we do the work with the dog, there is no confusion as to how the trainer and the dog will respond to each other.
There’s more. Here are some additional methods we perform to ensure all K9 dog teams achieve and remain at peak performance for our clients.
Third Party Verification: We always find different ways to keep ourselves and our dogs sharp. We videotape each other to watch the habits of ourselves, and the dogs. We send the videos to our trainer, and also send to a third party evaluator in North Carolina called Green Collar K9. They are a third party evaluator of our certification and training videos that we send in periodically. They help us to adjust things like where the trainer is walking in comparison to the dogs position.
Certification: This process happens as a team, dog and person. You can learn more about this at www.iaocpi.org. The requirements are quite stringent – typically to have a certification we endeavor to find a canine officer or ex military canine handler that will proctor the exam. There are a series of obstacles, one is general scent recognition. Other is handler and k9 search pattern recognition, third would be how they work, and properly alert to the live insects. All this is placed upon video. A team is only allowed two false alerts, and through the whole test the team must find five live vials correctly. Each session takes 20 minutes. As a kicker, teams are allowed three bedbugs in the live vials. Distractions would include dead bedbugs in separate vials.
Leading up to the certification, when the handler and dog meet, they have to bond. The dog has to recognize the handler as dominant, and the source of reward, subsistence and praise. It takes weeks for them to get into a search pattern, know how to work together. I can personally train every dog on scent. But once the dog starts to get a reward from someone else, it will try to false alert in order to trick them. The dog will false alert. ***That is where time and training go hand in hand as a team***. You have got to be able to trust that the dog is going to lead you in the right direction.
As an example, one trainer worked with dog for 9 weeks before doing the first job. So trainer works for up to 3 months, and dog works up to 4 months to be trained on the scent.
Reports: we have a customer profile that we have developed, which has specific questions that are asked when a client calls into our office with a possible bedbug problem. That form is given to the technician or the handler when he goes out to the job, and it helps him/her dog better inspections. In some cases, we will also take a picture of the area that the dog alerts in, after asking permission. This helps the pest control company that we work for to do their treatments.
There are plenty of examples of poor work from other companies. I once talked with trainer that did a study for a hotel firm. he interviewed to seek other scent detection companies, because the present company that was contracted was doing a lot of alerts, and they wanted to verify that the company was being honest.
In total nine companies were tested. The trainer set up three rooms with bedbugs, and 25 empty rooms, with suitcase, pillow case and one other that I can’t recall at the moment. In theory, these should have been easy finds. Of the nine companies, one company found the correct three hides, but also alerted in rooms with no bed bugs. One company alerted to multiple rooms with without bedbugs. The rest had further sub-par performance:
- Not one of the companies alerted to the same combination of rooms.
- Not one of the companies alerted to the three rooms and nothing else.
This indicates to me that the K9 Dog Companies had the following problems:
- Not enough training
- Not enough distraction training,
- Lack of familiarity with the K9 dogs by the handlers.
I know of one company had its dog for six weeks and thought it was good enough to go into hotel!
In a testing using a similar study, Dana K9 received an 81 percent accuracy rating – on a 97 degree day. Our biggest mistake and lesson learned from the inspection was that we realized that we needed to take control of that inspection – I believe the rating would have been better if we rested the dogs more often, and did not give into pressure from the inspector. We also had an alert to a tenant’s apartment, that they said had no bedbugs. But after three days of monitoring that apartment, they did indeed find a bedbug. Even the test is possibly spoiled because bedbugs are professional hitch hikers, and can be brought into any environment. Either way, we are just looking for the truth in test results.
In my opinion, here’s the best test: We rent 6 or 8 hotel rooms all to oneself, know that nobody has been in those rooms for at least a month. On one of our certification tests, we take 4 hotel rooms to use as an area for our testing. I was by adamant that there was a bedbug in the bed. The exam proctor said no, it is a false alert. When we tore the bed apart we found a bedbug. Our lesson learned: before we do an exam like that, or train in hotels similar to that environment, we do search patterns in those areas first.
Per dog, we are comfortable doing 60-75 rooms per day, per dog. There are a lot of breaks in between for the dog and the trainer.
If the dog is in an environment where there are no bedbugs, we will use the environment (with permission) to still train the dog on sealed vials. This way the dog is still training, and eating based upon correct, positive alerts. I another case, we will take the dog back to the office, train them on search patterns, and get them fed.
In one case we alerted to a small sofa with a black duffel bag in it. When they went out to job, they looked and saw duffel bag, they insisted that the duffel bag be brought for a treatment process. Of course, they found bedbugs inside the duffel bag.
We also certify empty apartments. If we are aware of an empty apartment that is available, we will video a canine inspection, give to landlord and give certificate that the apartment was inspected by so and so team, they can use in ads to certify that apartment is bedbug free. Reports are scanned and kept on file, and the landlord can always contact us for additional copies of the report. Videos are kept on file and burnt onto a separate disk.