Meet the South Dakota couple who keep thousands of bedbugs in their home

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Greg and Denise Patton pose for a portrait with their bedbug detection beagles, Bo and B.G., on Wednesday, Jan 8, 2020 in Sioux Falls. The couple started Dakota Bedbug Detection in 2011 and use their certified beagles to sniff out bedbugs. Abigail Dollins/Argus Leader

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – It’s 6 p.m. on a Wednesday, and Greg and Denise Patton are wedging a vial full of bedbugs between their couch cushions.

“You had bedbugs in this couch?” Denise says, the most common question she gets from guests. “It always requires that we explain what’s going on … sometimes we don’t think to tell people they’re in vials.”

It’s something the couple has done since they started Dakota Bedbug Detection in 2011.

Around that time Denise, an entomologist with the city and self-described “bug person” said she’d been hearing more and more questions from friends concerned about bedbugs.

Bedbugs are stored inside of a vial used for training purposes on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020 at the Pattons home in Sioux Falls. Abigail/ Dollins/ Argus Leader

It felt like there was something they could do to help, she thought, and a new business was born.

Most people might not know, Denise said, that their job detecting bedbugs is “about 50% counseling.” Not everyone is a bug person like she is.

“It literally brings them to tears,” she said about some people’s reaction to bedbugs. “Not understanding things about the bugs can be super terrifying.”

How do they find the bedbugs?

After some research (as well as a healthy dose of convincing Greg, a business professor who “hates bugs”) Denise came across IronHeart Training Center.

Bo the beagle sniffs out the bedbugs on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020 at the Pattons home in Sioux Falls. Abigail Dollins/ Argus Leader

IronHeart trains dogs to find drugs, bombs, accelerants, mold, termites, currency and, of course, bedbugs.

And that’s where they found Bo, an energetic beagle who can sniff out the insects with the best of them. It’s also where they got another beagle, the calmer B.G., a few years later.

To be ready to head off to a handler, it takes about four to six months of training, said Matt Skogen, IronHeart’s director of training, but it doesn’t stop there. Regular maintenance training is needed to ensure the dog stays at the top of their game.

And that’s why almost every day, Bo and B.G. put on their green work vests, get leashed up and search their home for bedbugs.

When they’re working for real, they’ve checked houses, hotels, apartment complexes, nursing homes, dorms and more. Some of their visits are regular preventive checks; some are homeowners who suspect an issue but want to be sure.

Whether it’s practice or a real job, hunting for bedbugs involves both dog and handler.

Denise or Greg walk around with a metal pointer, constantly tapping the areas that Bo or B.G. should be searching.

It has to be a fairly directed approach, because the dog will need to get within 6-8 inches of a bedbug in order to smell it, Denise said.

Once they smell a bedbug – and they can smell a single one, in any stage of life – they’ll immediately sit, as well as expect a treat.

How the Pattons keep bedbugs in their home

It’s a good thing that the dogs have to get close to smell bedbugs – because the Patton home is also often the home of “the colony,” a collection of 5,000 to 10,000 bedbugs that live in three Mason jars.

Of course, if you want to keep that many bedbugs alive, they’re going to need to eat.

Bedbugs want to feed on warm, oxygenated blood. The trainers at IronHeart had used pinky mice – what you might feed a snake – but Denise and Greg had trouble finding enough.

B.G. the beagle sniffs for the hidden vial of bedbugs on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020 in Sioux Falls. Abigail Dollins/ Argus Leader

But, Denise realized, there was already a source of warm, oxygenated blood: herself.

The bedbug-filled jars, which have medical mesh stretched over the top, are flipped over and Denise places them onto her forearm. The bugs are able to feed through the mesh without escaping.

It’s a little strange, yeah. But she’s not in any danger – while bedbugs can carry disease, they can’t spread it.

From that same colony, they’ll even sell bedbugs to researchers or other companies training dogs (and they’ll check to make sure you’re not someone looking to plant them in a hotel to get a free room.)

More than anything, Denise and Greg just want to help people. Sure, they might not make everyone “bug people.” But you can get them less fearful, less worried.

Because there can be a stigma around bedbugs as well, Denise said, one that can prevent people from looking for help in a belief that if they have bedbugs they’ve done something wrong, or they’re not clean.

But it’s not true, she said. Rich, poor, clean, dirty, it doesn’t matter. Anyone can be affected by bedbugs, she said.

“It’s not anything to be ashamed of,” she said.

This article originally appeared on Sioux Falls Argus Leader:

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