Bedbug-Sniffing Dogs Raise Questions About False Alarms

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A New York Times article yesterday carried worrisome tidings for those hoping dogs could save cities from the bedbug epidemic. The bedbug-detecting beagle Roscoe is nearing celebrity status in New York, but it appears, Cara Buckley reports, that some dogs are giving false positives in bedbug-free apartments. The problem may be poorly trained dogs--or poorly-trained trainers, who, unconsciously reaching for a treat, accidentally prompt the dog to "alert." There's also worry that trainers are deliberately prompting the dogs; some detection companies "also [offer] extermination treatment," presenting something of a conflict of interest. Then, too, "false alerts can also be made by well-trained, highly attuned dogs ... [who] might pick up on bedbug scents transmitted by clothes or wafting through ventilation from a neighboring apartment." The debate is on.

  • The Problem of Feeding  The New York Times' Cara Buckley explores, in a separate piece for the City Room blog, how feeding dogs "only when they signal the presence of bedbugs" can be problematic. "Wouldn't that give the dog an incentive to give a false alert?" Experts say, she explains, "that it depends." Some companies "bowl-feed their dogs twice daily but reward dogs that have alerted to bedbugs with treats, " so that hungry dogs won't be as prone to "false alerts." Some trainers also use food to reward dogs for ignoring other insects and only alerting to bedbugs. Buckley points out that some are already "pushing for the industry to embrace regulations to standardize and track dogs' training and accuracy, and ensure that handlers are also properly trained."
  • Newsflash: 'Dogs Aren't Four-Legged Scientific Instruments,' Edward Tenner proclaims at The Atlantic.
They have a deep and complex relationships with owners and handlers. They're so beloved because they value our love so much. Some scents might be from hidden bedbugs, others from neighboring apartments or from residues of previous infestation. But sometimes the animals might just hate to disappoint handlers with too long a slump. So certification is probably not as important as improved training methods. Eagerness to please isn't unique to bedbug detection; it has been an issue in forensics, too, virtually from the beginning of the use of canine evidence in Germany in the 1920s, when some German Shepherd tracking dogs misidentified innocent suspects.
  • Skip All That--Who Is Roscoe?  Jenn Doll at The Village Voice admits she doesn't much care about whether dog-detection works and is worth the full $11,000: "even if we had $11,000, AND bedbugs, we probably wouldn't spend that money on a bedbug-sniffing dog." So what are Village Voicers really interested in? The part of the New York Times article which discussed Roscoe, "who is so famous he has not only a Facebook page but also an iPhone app, and--the true test of celebrity--'fellow beagles often get mistaken for him on the street'!" This sends Doll on a mission to learn more. Revelations include that Roscoe "is an extrovert ... really loves his job," is "quite the workaholic ... yet ... comes from humble beginnings." Also, "he is a dog," and likes "riding in the car with the windows down."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.