By Amy Bradley-Hole Travel columnist
updated 9/23/2007 6:23:41 PM ET 2007-09-23T22:23:41

Friday was graduation day at an elite academy, and I was privileged to meet a few members of the senior class. They were an impressive group. The students had to pass rigorous tests before they were allowed to leave the campus. Their guardians had to pass some tests, too. Though the graduates are a smart and hardworking bunch, they also seemed pretty fun-loving. Plus, they liked to give lots of kisses — big, wet, sloppy ones, in fact.

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This was a graduating class of canines, and they were ready to complete their education at J & K Canine Academy, in High Springs, Fla. These dogs are about to enter the workplace, and their job will be to detect bed bugs, termites and other creepy critters.

The owner of J & K is Pepe Peruyero, a former law enforcement officer who worked with K-9 units in Gainesville, Fla. Pepe knew that dogs could be trained to sniff out narcotics, bombs and missing persons. Why not bugs, he wondered? Seeing a business opportunity, he set to work training dogs to detect the presence of termites.

The field results were great, but Peruyero worried that people would be skeptical, so he began working with the University of Florida's Department of Entomology to conduct more rigorous scientific testing. That work not only confirmed Peruyero's results with termites, but also led to the dogs learning to detect more types of bugs. In a later stage of the work, Peruyero and the university entomologists developed training and testing standards for the puppy pupils.

Peruyero chose well when he next decided to train his dogs to detect bed bugs. Bed bugs are tiny insects that look a bit like an apple seed; they live in temperate climates and feed on human blood. Although bed bugs don't spread disease and are fairly harmless, their creep-you-out factor is off the charts. Because bed bugs can be hard to spot, multiply rapidly and are hard to kill with modern pesticides, they have become a growing problem for buildings with a high occupant turnover rate. Peruyero knew that hotels, with their emphasis on cleanliness and comfort for guests, would soon be searching for new ways to combat bed bugs, so he took the plunge.

Sure enough, business is now growing rapidly. The company trained just one dog in bed-bug detection last year, but has trained another 15 dogs already this year, and has a waiting list of another dozen or so. J & K is currently one of only six facilities in the world that train dogs for insect detection. When asked if he could help clients overseas, Peruyero replied, "Absolutely! We have a trilingual staff capable of providing services worldwide."

Dogs in the bedroom
The training program that Peruyero began developing three years ago is now so advanced that his dogs can enter a hotel room and, within two to three minutes, alert their handlers if the tiniest trace of bed bugs is present in the room. The dogs can even tell the differences among live bed bugs, dead bed bugs, bed-bug eggs and even bed-bug fecal matter (yuck). The service these dogs perform is invaluable for hotels, hospitals, colleges and universities, apartment complexes, military barracks, camps — in fact, for any property owners who fear that bed bugs may be a problem. The dogs can quickly deliver the bad news, so treatment can be started immediately. Or they can give the property a clean bill of health, avoiding the cost and harsh chemicals that are used on preventive pest-control measures.

The dogs trained by J & K are often sold to people who are interested in starting their own detection company. But J & K doesn't just train the dogs and then hand them over. The new handlers must be trained, also. The training takes five days, and the handler/dog teams must prove themselves in simulated hotel room settings, detecting the presence or absence of bed bugs with 100 percent accuracy before J & K will release them.

I met Ron and Eric Silverson, from the Tampa Bay, Fla., area, on graduation day. These guys and their new dog, the aptly named "Hunter," had passed with flying colors. Hunter will be moving to Florida's Gulf Coast to become the most-valued employee of Hunter Detection Services (H.D.S.).

Mary Silverson, vice president of H.D.S., believes insect detection is a cutting-edge business opportunity, and she'll take a dog inspector over a human inspector any day. "We realize that bed bugs are on their way to becoming part of our daily lives," she says. "Ascertaining the presence or absence of live bed bugs requires a thorough, labor-intensive inspection and presents a challenge to the most highly trained, experienced pest-control technician, taking several hours to complete. But a scientifically trained and certified K-9 bed-bug detector is more accurate than a human inspector, and can inspect in a fraction of the time without disrupting the property."

Ron and Eric said they plan to market their services to hotels and motels, property-management companies and homeowners, and they expect to make money. But they point out that owning a pest-detection canine isn't easy. The dogs cost around $8,500, and their upkeep — including such things as food, veterinary care, the handler's salary and transportation — can range from $80,000 to $100,000 a year. What's more, these dogs never get a break from training - they must be put through the detection paces every single day to keep their sniffers sharp. J & K offers refresher workshops that Peruyero encourages the dogs and handlers to attend, and the dogs must be recertified annually.

Pros and cons
I was very impressed with J & K's operations, but some hotels have reservations about using the dogs. There's that big ownership cost, for one thing, and "renting" the services of a dog might not be affordable, either. Of course, treating an established infestation — which can involve completely gutting and refurbishing a room — can be a lot more expensive than either owning or renting a dog, so the money argument cuts both ways.

Some people remain skeptical about the dogs' bug-finding abilities, too. To my mind, J & K's extensive research with the University of Florida and its affiliation with the National Entomology Scent Detection Canine Association (NESDCA), a group that provides accreditations for facilities and trainers, should persuade the hotel keepers that the dogs are a good thing to have roaming the corridors.

But what about the guests? Some hotel managers worry that if guests see a "bug dog," they'll think the hotel has a bug problem. But J & K can train any breed of dog in insect detection, so handlers can take a fluffy, cute little pooch, tuck it into a handbag, and enter and leave a property very discreetly. Another concern: a dog might spread allergens or — even worse — spread bed bugs to areas where there were none before. But J & K-trained handlers learn a very specific protocol for grooming the dogs, which involves brushing, cleaning and drying the dogs immediately before and after they go to work.

In the future, Peruyero plans to improve and expand the service of canine insect detection by helping develop more industry standards and protocols, both for training the dogs and for utilizing the dogs in the field. He also wants to begin marketing the dogs' services to cruise lines. If only he could train dogs to sniff out noroviruses!

So don't be surprised if you see a four-legged friend acting "nosy" around your hotel room one day soon. Your hotel might just be at the forefront of preventive pest control. You'll be able to sleep tight, knowing the bed bugs won't bite.

Amy Bradley-Hole has worked in the hotel industry for many years in many different positions and at all types of properties — from small luxury boutique hotels to large resorts, both in the United States and abroad. E-mail her or read more of her articleson Tripso.com!

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