Not just drugs or bombs. Newest sniffing target for dogs: bed bugs

Dogs can be trained to do some amazing things, like track down lost children, detect bombs or find drugs. Now, there are canines in Georgetown County that can sniff out a nasty pest that is dogging the tourism industry: bed bugs.

Yarro, a two-year-old yellow Labrador retriever, has a favorite game. It involves sniffing out a jar full of bed bugs that's hidden in one of five large white containers set up in a row on the property at Merrill's Detector Dogs Service near Browns Ferry.

When Yarro alerts on the right container, he'll sit right down and stare at it. To reward him, the trainer releases a tennis ball, Yarro's favorite toy.

When it comes to detecting bed bugs, Yarro and his buddies at Merrill's are amazing.

"The pillow today (that Yarro alerted on in an earlier test) just had a couple of bed bugs in it. We train from one to hundreds," said Yaro's handler, Kathy Heselton.

Merrill's Service has been in the detector dog business for many years, but recently added bed bugs to the things their dogs are trained to detect. The dogs will ignore dead bugs.

"It's the live bugs," Heselton explains. "They give off a pheromone that the dogs can smell and that's what they alert to."

Bed bugs are a growing problem in the U.S., especially for hotels. Merrill's has quickly expanded from one bed bug detecting dog to five.

"Right now, they're strong in Florida, Georgia. South Carolina is our focus with this Southern group. We have dogs in Maine and New England as well."

The firm's detector dogs can do many different things, from finding explosives to sniffing out narcotics. Each dog is trained for a specific purpose. Yarro has one talent and that's finding bed bugs. For the dog's handlers, that one thing seemed just a little bit creepy.

"I think we kind of had to mentally get past the fact that we're finding bugs," Heselton said. "There's not a single thing different about training the dog. It's just the fact that you're playing with bugs, instead of explosives or narcotics."

To train the dogs, the company has to keep a fresh supply of bed bugs at its Georgetown County facility and those bed bugs have to eat. So how do they feed the bed bugs? By letting the bugs bite their arms and draw blood, often leaving large red welts behind.