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Sniffing out bedbugs: Dexter the dog is on the job

Dexter was clearly stoked to be going to work. The 4-year-old chocolate Lab bounded through the hotel lobby, stood on two legs as he rode the elevator and then zipped down the second-floor hallway sniffing the carpet. "You see, he's already looki...

Dexter was clearly stoked to be going to work.

The 4-year-old chocolate Lab bounded through the hotel lobby, stood on two legs as he rode the elevator and then zipped down the second-floor hallway sniffing the carpet.

"You see, he's already looking," his handler, Keith Rowan, said.

When they reached Room 202, Rowan opened the door and gave the command: "Search!"

The couch? Nope.

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The chair? The desk? Nothing.

What about the bed? Bingo.

Dexter, tense with energy, sat wagging his tail, indicating that he'd made a find.

"Atta boy!" Rowan said, handing Dexter a red rubber toy.

This pair, a burly Manitoba native and his pup from a Winnipeg shelter, were using a Grand Forks hotel room to demonstrate what's lately become a profitable skill: bedbug detection.

Rowan, who lives in Grand Forks and owns PRO-DOG Detector Dog Services, travels the region with Dexter, visiting day cares, libraries, houses, apartment complexes and other places, looking for the bloodsucking pests.

"The unfortunate thing is we're starting to find lots of bedbugs," he said.

When they search living spaces, Rowan has Dexter focus on areas where people sleep, namely beds, couches and recliners. If they find bedbugs, others are called in to exterminate them.

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Clients put a lot of stock in Dexter, whose nose, Rowan said, can locate bedbugs that are in hard-to-reach places such as behind walls and under baseboards. "They trust that dog more than a human," he said.

Thankful customers will sometimes shower Dexter with toys and praise. Others give him kisses. "One even wrote him a poem," Rowan said.

But Rowan knows he and Dexter aren't perfect.

"We're not the save-all," he cautioned. "There'll be times where we may miss something."

'To the wolves'

The search in Room 202 was just a training exercise. The hotel lets Rowan train his dog there in return for free precautionary inspections. Even though the hotel does not have a bedbug problem, it did not want its name used for fear of the stigma the bugs carry.

Before bringing Dexter into the room, Rowan planted a sealed plastic vial containing about 10 live bedbugs between the box spring and the mattress.

Rowan, 42, keeps the bugs, each about the size of an apple seed, in an aquarium in his garage and uses them for training. But, as might be expected, there's a downside to giving room and board to bedbugs.

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"The only way to feed bedbugs is that we're basically throwing ourselves to the wolves, putting our hand in there, and they actually feed off me once a week," Rowan said.

The bugs, which he initially bought from a lab for $4 apiece, leave bite marks that heal, but itch the next day.

"You get used to it," he said. "If you're not allergic or have a deficiency in your immune system, there shouldn't be any issues."

'Difficult to control'

Rowan, who started his PRO-DOG business in 2004, has done much of his work with pups that can sniff out illegal drugs. Schools and companies wanting to know if drugs are on the premises hire Rowan and his dogs, T-Rex and Boomer, to conduct unannounced searches.

About three years ago, Rowan got a call from a casino in Minnesota asking if he had a dog that could detect bedbugs. After that, similar calls kept coming.

So, Rowan, a Grand Forks firefighter who was once a K-9 police officer for the city, spent five months training Dexter to identify the distinct smell of bedbugs. Dexter started taking paying gigs this spring. Meanwhile, Rowan is still schooling a yellow Lab named Sam to find bedbugs, as well.

Rowan, who doesn't know of another bedbug dog handler in the region, often takes jobs in Canada and will travel anywhere within a five-hour drive. He charges $150 per hour with a two-hour minimum. He hopes eventually to team with local exterminators and do inspections for them.

Dan Mayer of Dan's Pest Control in Grand Forks said he plans to discuss that possibility with Rowan. "Any additional tool for finding these things is definitely not going to hurt," Mayer said.

Mayer said bedbugs are a nationwide problem that's not going away.

"There is hardly a week that doesn't go by that we're not getting calls on bedbugs," he said.

He said early detection is key. "They're very difficult to control once you have them," he said. "When people are traveling or whatever, they just really have to be careful."

Though Rowan works around bedbugs, he says, he doesn't take any special precautions in making sure they don't hitch a ride on him. He does, however, give Dexter a brush-down after work.

Rowan acknowledges there's a chance he could bring them home -- a prospect his wife, Leslie, is not enthusiastic about. "I wouldn't be very happy if all of a sudden we had an infestation," she said.

Nevertheless, she sees a need for the work her husband does, so she supports him. But when it comes to the bedbugs her husband feeds, she steers clear.

"I know they're out there in my garage, but it's not like I go out there to visit them."

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