Help! Bed bug-sniffing dogs marked my apartment

By | September 21st, 2013

Robin Williams
Robin Williams

Dogs sniffing for bed bugs. If you’ve never heard of it, don’t worry — neither had I, until Roxana Sierra asked us for help with a $660 bill. I’ll let her pick up this story.

I rented an apartment in Clintonville, Ohio, from August 2012 to July 28, 2013. After I moved out, the management sent me a Move Out Statement with a charge of $660 for a “bed bug treatment.”

I was very surprised [to learn about this] treatment, since as far as I know I do not have bed bugs. I checked exhaustively in my bed/furniture and didn’t find a single bed bug (dead or alive), nor any other kind of traces like blood on the sheets or the mattress.

I talked to the manager of the apartment and she said they bring “trained dogs” to sniff for the bed bugs and they reacted “positively.” I asked for a picture of a bed bug or any other physical evidence, but they did not have any.

I have been trying to negotiate with them to prove I do not have bed bugs. I proposed to get a professional for a visual inspection of my current apartment, but they refused; they say it does not make any sense to do it since the dogs already reacted positively.

After I reviewed the correspondence between Sierra and the apartment managers, I could tell that this was going nowhere. I requested that the manager meet her in the middle on this bed bug treatment. Here is the manager’s response.

Unfortunately, I have to decline the offer to split the cost, as I cannot set a precedent with splitting costs we have incurred as a result of a residents move out charges. Fair Housing prohibits me from treating residents differently. We had several apartments that incurred the same costs for bed bug treatment. (None of them were located near her).

With that reply, I suggested to her that she get a pest control company to inspect her current residence for any signs of bed bugs (since most companies will perform an initial inspection for free) and get a report from them.

Sierra also took a good step on her own when she contacted Dr. Susan Jones, an entomologist at Ohio State University, for her input. Here is a bit from Dr. Jones:

The team approach to bed bug detection using a bed bug-sniffing dog and its handler can be a useful tool for detecting bed bugs, but it is not totally reliable.

Research shows that canine-handler teams can provide vastly different results, with some being quite poor at bed bug detection and others being quite good. My advice to people hiring these teams is that a “positive alert” has to be followed up with someone actually finding the bed bug(s) or bringing in a second independent team (no idea of previous findings of the first team) to see if a positive alert occurs in the same location in the room and then following up to actually locate the bed bug(s).

These dogs and their handlers are living beings and hence have “off” days. Relying simply on a canine alert without any evidence of bed bugs or their tell-tale signs (fecal deposits, shed exoskeletons [skins]) is a very poor practice. It means that some unnecessary bed bug treatments will be performed and their associated cost will be borne by someone.

Sierra followed our advice and had a national pest control company check out her new apartment, and they found no evidence of bed bugs on her belongings or in the apartment, and once she forwarded the report from them and the above letter from Dr. Jones, the manager saw it her way, and she was refunded the $660 for the bed bug treatment.

At least, she will get her deposit back, but let this serve as a warning to the rest of the world that those dogs that sniff for bed bugs (and other pests) may not be completely reliable.

If you can’t see the pests, they may not exist.

William Leeper is a consumer advocate based in Waldron, Ark. He mediated this case on behalf of one of this site’s readers. If you’d like to help by becoming a volunteer mediator, please send us an email.

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