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September 21, 2014

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LAS VEGAS AT LARGE:

Bedbugs: Dog devoted to pest detection

Summerlin man hopes to build a business on her ability to sniff out bedbugs

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Tiffany Brown

Joe Restifo got the idea for a bedbug detection business from a news story about the Tropicana offering a bounty to housekeepers for turning in the pests.

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Restifo demonstrates the scent wheel he uses to train his dog, Sara, to detect bedbugs. When she picks out the container holding the bedbugs from those holding other items, she gets a food reward.

Beyond the Sun

Meet Sara. She’s young, blond and frisky. And she likes to sniff hotel sheets.

She’s a Labrador retriever mix, trained to detect the scent of bedbugs.

When Sara finds them, she rocks ecstatically against the floor or waves her nose at them, depending on where they are.

Sara works for K-9 Sweeps, apparently the first company of its kind in Las Vegas. Joe Restifo, the owner, warns that the insidious bedbug menace can strike at any time and without warning. A hotel’s only hope is constant vigilance.

Which is where, Restifo says, he and Sara come in. He guides her nose over carpets, couches and beds in search of pests almost invisible to the unaided eye. (When Sara finds the enemy, Restifo marks the spot with blue tape to guide the exterminator later.)

To keep Sara’s skills sharp, Restifo hides a vial of bedbugs in his home each day for her to find, or uses a scent wheel that contains vials of linens, crickets and — aah ha! — bedbugs. When she finds them, she gets her dog-food reward. Restifo’s hand is Sara’s only food dish. Sara lives, then, to smell out bedbugs.

Once nearly eradicated from American life by pesticides such as DDT, bedbugs have been making a comeback, though they are not yet a major pest problem. Unless, of course, you have them.

Cimex lectularius, notes the University of California pest management program, is a cosmopolitan species. It tracks carbon dioxide, so deep-breathing sleepers are stationary targets. Bedbugs will find your skin and enjoy what scientists call a blood meal, ingesting six to ten times their weight.

Speaking of which, Restifo has to feed the training bedbugs. Once a month, Restifo offers them the back of his hand.

He says the bedbugs are hard to see at first, being small and nearly the color of his skin, but as they fill up they become visible, looking like tiny blood blisters, leaving welts on the skin.

“That’s one of the downsides of this job,” he says of the suckling bugs, “but every job has downsides.”

Restifo, who spent 15 years selling equipment to car mechanics, considered the bedbug business after reading in the Sun last spring that the Tropicana was offering housekeepers a bounty for live bedbugs. Exterminators confirmed for him that bedbug calls had been on the rise for the past three years, and he thought there might be a business opportunity. After learning that trained dogs can detect bedbugs, Restifo enlisted his business partner from the Florida Canine Academy.

Sara was rescued from a shelter in Kentucky. Her training took more than 600 hours. Restifo flew to Florida for a week of training. And on Dec. 18, he returned to Las Vegas with a 1-year-old puppy that has so far cost him between $12,000 and $13,000 after taking into account the cost of the dog, training, vet bills, airfare, supplies and the like.

In the two-month history of Restifo’s company, Sara has been hired to sniff in a pair of youth group homes. He won’t elaborate, and promises to be equally discreet for hotel clients.

Sara spends the rest of her time blending in with the Restifo family in Summerlin, playing with the children and its other dog, a small black pug. She galumphs on still-skinny legs and licks Restifo’s face.

“She’s like a 5-year-old kid with some kind of super power,” Restifo says.

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