Eyes bright, tail up and wagging, nose eagerly sniffing the air — the beagle is the classic picture of a dog on the hunt.
Moments later, the aptly named Hunter finds his prey and starts digging at a couch cushion. Owner-handler Eric Silverson gives him a treat, then reaches under the cushion for a small glass vial of bedbugs.
Hunter is a bedbug detection dog and, Silverson says, the only one in the Tampa Bay area that is certified annually through the National Entomology Scent Detection Canine Association.
Silverson and his family own an exterminating company in Seminole. They were aware of the increasing number of bedbugs across the country, but until he attended a conference at the University of Florida three years ago he had never heard of bedbug dogs.
He was impressed by what he heard and contacted J&K Canine Academy in High Springs, which works with UF, and bought Hunter. After both were trained, the Silversons opened a second business, Hunter Detection Services, in honor of their star employee.
The business specializes in checking hotels, motels, businesses and homes for bedbugs. It also subs out to other exterminators with clients who want a bedbug check.
More and more people are finding that they have the critters.
"Bedbugs are a huge problem," said Phil Koehler, a UF professor of entomology. "They're well-established now in some areas."
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Bedbugs became more prevalent about 10 years ago courtesy of international travelers, who brought them back from abroad. At first they were mainly found in places like high-end hotel rooms. Now they're all over.
People who buy new mattresses find them already infested because the bugs were in delivery trucks that have disposed of infested mattresses. Kids who spend the night with friends can bring them home in backpacks. Even movie theaters can get infested.
"You can get bitten while you're on public transportation," Koehler said.
Bedbugs are extremely difficult to control and eliminate. Koehler said he knows of one woman in New York City who is reported to have spent $100,000 trying to get rid of them.
Bedbugs are so prevalent in Manhattan that clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch closed a second store Friday because of an infestation, according to the Wall Street Journal. The store has appealed to Mayor Michael Bloomberg for help, but city officials have said companies must deal with the insects on their own.
Pesticides can be ineffective and must be applied directly to the bugs, which are tiny and almost impossible to find. A human, he said, can take eight hours tearing up a hotel room trying to find the bedbugs. But a dog can walk in and two minutes later, find the one bedbug egg in the room.
That's where dogs like Hunter come in handy. And the word is spreading. J&K Canine Academy, which has been in business since 1997, has expanded in the past couple of years despite the recession, said Bun Montgomery, J&K's scent division director.
While part of the business is for dogs that detect narcotics, bombs, termites and snakes, the demand for bedbug dogs is "keeping us busy," Montgomery said.
Most of the J&K dogs come from shelters or rescue groups. Trainers look for "a high-drive dog that really likes to play." They take that and turn it into the dog's job.
"Instead of playing ball, you play bedbug," Montgomery said.
The breed, the looks and the conformation aren't really important, although Montgomery said J&K tries to keep bedbug dogs on the smaller side. They can get under beds and furniture more easily than large dogs, he said. And "bigger dogs have bigger tails" that may accidentally knock things over.
The average bedbug dog takes four months to train and costs about $10,250. Barring any health issues, the dog should be able to work for eight to 10 years and search 100 to 130 hotel rooms a day.
Silverson said it has been an eye-opening experience to have a dog as a partner. Customers don't see him; they only have eyes for Hunter.
When Hunter has found bedbugs and Silverson goes back to treat the premises, sometimes the customers ask who he is. He has to explain that he's the guy who came with the dog.
Reach Anne Lindberg at (727) 893-8450 or [email protected]