MOUNT PLEASANT — Trace walks around the hotel room, sniffing the carpet, a chest of drawers and a nightstand before stopping at the foot of a bed in the room.
The dog’s owner, Ellen Douglas, calls her pause an “alert” and commands her, “Show me.” Trace points her snout at a spot near the foot of the bed and then again on a second command.
Douglas pulls up the blanket, lifts up the mattress and discovers a hidden vial filled with bedbugs.
Douglas, owner of Carolina K-9 Detection, planted the sealed vials in the hotel bed to demonstrate how Trace, a black Labrador retriever mix, detects bedbugs and to make sure she is on her game.
She also owns Mason, a Rat Terrier mix. Both are trained to detect not only bedbugs but lurking mold as well.
“They are 90 to 96 percent effective,” Douglas said. “A visual inspection alone is only 30 percent effective.”
Douglas added that the trained dogs point out the presence of bedbugs by a scent they emit, but she said it’s equally important to visually inspect the area as well since dogs are not 100 percent accurate and can provide false alerts.
“I always do a complete visual inspection if there is an alert,” she said.
Sometimes they are hard to see, but there can be telltale signs of an infestation such as small black dots, which indicate bedbug excrement, skins shed through molting and blood smears on sheets.
The bloody stains can occur when the bedbug is feeding on human skin and the person rolls over and smashes it, Douglas said. They tend to bite arms, legs, necks and shoulders, but can bite anywhere on the body.
“They feed on you at night, and they are easier to pop than a tick,” she said.
If there is an alert, she uses a magnifying glass, flashlights and swabs, if necessary, to take samples for bedbug DNA and send off to a laboratory in Dallas. She also takes pictures of an infested area, jots down a lot of notes and tries to scoop up any bedbugs she finds with a cup, since they tend to congregate.
Douglas started her dog-sniffing bedbug- and mold-detection business in Charlotte in 2009 after getting laid off the previous fall as a customer service representative at a conveyor belt company.
“I hate sitting at a desk, and I didn’t like that job anyway,” said the divorced mother of four and former insurance claims adjuster. She re-entered the workforce after her children, now ages 15-20, grew into teenagers.
Being out of a job during the recession left her plenty of time to scour the Internet in search of employment.
“I love animals, and I wanted to find a business that not only I could enjoy but also make a living at,” Douglas said.
With all of the talk about the explosion of bedbugs across the country near the end of the past decade, she investigated it a little further and decided to look into going into the canine bedbug- and mold-detection business.
She talked with a dog trainer in Florida at Florida Canine Academy, where he matched her up with Trace, an animal shelter rescue. She paid $10,000 for the dog and attended classes for certification.
Mason came on board last year, initially as a pet from a shelter adoption in North Carolina, but she decided in August to send him to Florida for five months of training, paying out another $7,000.
“You can take something that society has thrown away and make it worthwhile,” she said.
The Spartanburg native recently set up residency near Mount Pleasant and continues to keep a home outside Charlotte, but she plans to move to the Lowcountry permanently when her daughter begins college here in about 18 months.
She operates her business from Washington, D.C., to Charleston and hasn’t detected bedbugs in every place she’s been hired to inspect but has found plenty of the mostly nocturnal blood-sucking creatures in every type of building out there.
Nursing homes, assisted-living centers, hospitals, hotels, apartments and homes — all have been found to carry the dull-brown insects about the size of an apple seed at maturity. If they are rust-colored, it means they have just finished feeding.
At a nursing home near Washington, she found bedbugs in 50 of 86 rooms. At an assisted-living center in North Carolina, Douglas discovered another 12 infested rooms.
“Visitors bring them in in pocketbooks and bookbags,” she said. “People bring in boxes of personal items from home, and bedbugs are hitchhikers. They move in, too.”
Eight out of 10 times, bedbugs are found behind headboards attached to walls in hotel rooms because those areas can’t be reached to be cleaned. Another part of hotel rooms that’s rarely cleaned are skirts around bed bottoms, she said.
“That’s a good place for them to hang out,” she said.
To avoid taking bedbugs home with you from a hotel, Douglas recommends that visitors put luggage in the bathtub. When guests are in the shower, they should place their bags on the sink counter and never on the bed or furniture.
“Bedbugs can’t climb up the sides of tubs,” she said. They also prefer to be close to their food source, which are humans in bed at night.
“Unless they are running around on the carpet, you won’t get one from walking into a room,” Douglas said. “But I say, ‘Never say never.’ ”
Because of that, she leaves her shoes outside when she gets home from work and shakes them out very well since bedbugs can crawl down inside shoes.
Even though bedbugs are attracted to humans, she treats her dogs with a topical solution to repel bedbugs, just like ticks and fleas.
She also recommends putting luggage in a tied-up garbage bag and placing it in a car in the summer heat to help kill any possible hitchhikers. Items inside luggage should immediately be placed in a dryer on the highest setting as a precaution. There are chemicals that can be used to get rid of bedbugs, but Douglas recommends people contact a pest control company.
The same goes for mold. She is certified in mold inspection but not mold remediation.
Though she worked for Orkin for two years to help pay the bills and get experience in pest control, Douglas said she is not affiliated with any pest control company.
She recently joined the Greater Charleston Pest Control Association.
Her minimum fee is $125 and it goes up from there based on square footage in a house or number of inspected rooms in a commercial building such as a hotel or nursing home.
The problem of bedbugs is so prevalent that the past president of the Greater Charleston Pest Control Association said he, too, is considering investing in dogs to inspect for bedbugs.
“It’s very hard to find them with a visual inspection without some type of tool,” said Randy Bishop, owner of?AllPro Pest Management in West Ashley. “There is an explosion of them. It is coming faster than we can keep up with it.”
He doesn’t know of any other local businesses beside Douglas’ that use dogs, but he believes detection canines could become more prevalent given the scope of the problem.
“The place they will be beneficial the most is in clearing and making sure they are completely gone,” Bishop said.
The rise in bedbugs, which were all but eradicated in the Western world until the 1980s, can mainly be attributed to the transient world of today, Bishop said. The rise of second-hand stores and illegal immigrants may also have contributed to the spread of bedbugs, he said.
“We started seeing them in the ’90s, then in the 2000s we got one or two calls a month, and now it’s three to five calls a day,” Bishop said.
For a medium infestation in one bedroom, the cost of remediation can start at $400, he said.
Treatment can come in the form of either chemicals or heat.
Bishop and Douglas recommend that people not wait for a problem to arise before asking for an inspection. Quarterly sweeps, especially of hotels, is a good approach, Douglas said. “If they are proactive, it is less likely to be a problem,” she said.
Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.