June 13, 2006

they won't let the bed-bugs bite

dogs have a highly developed sense of smell. we all know that. but did you know that dogs are trained to sniff out bed bugs in posh hotels? from an article in today's new york times:
Dogs and Their Fine Noses Find New Career Paths

A year ago, Jada, a frisky black mutt, was living in a Florida pound, her days numbered. Today she commands hundreds of dollars an hour at some of Manhattan's most exclusive hotels and apartment buildings. Her fate turned on her newly gained ability to sniff out something reviled in New York these days: bedbugs.

Last month, the Motion Picture Association of America started using two dogs, Lucky and Flo, to sniff out DVD's in the cargo area of Heathrow Airport in London, a major transit point for pirated DVD's. [...]

Dogs have long been partners in law enforcement's searches for narcotics, explosives and people (both dead and alive). But now their keen noses are being put to use in a wider variety of areas, like medicine, environmental protection and anti-piracy efforts. The number of dogs with the new, specialized skills remains but a fraction of the number trained for more traditional law enforcement uses.

Still, dogs are entering new career paths, learning to sniff out mercury in Minnesota schools, invasive weeds in Montana, cancer in people — even cows in heat. "The dogs do better than bulls," said Lawrence J. Myers, a professor of veterinary science at Auburn University, who wanted to increase the success rate of impregnation attempts, a pressing demand in the dairy industry. Dr. Myers, a leading expert on dogs' sense of smell, added that because dogs "have no innate interest in cows in heat," it takes repetitive training to teach them how to know when the cows are ready. (The bulls do not benefit from the dogs' work. Dairy cows are usually artificially inseminated.) [...]

"You can train a dog for anything that has a unique or mostly unique odor," Dr. Myers said. In the case of DVD's, the smell that Lucky and Flo have been trained to detect is polycarbonate plastic. In the case of cancer, scientists believe that dogs may be picking up biological compounds, like alkanes and benzene derivatives, that are not found in healthy tissue. [...]

Because dogs have 20 to 40 times the number of nasal receptor cells that humans do, they can detect the tiniest levels of odors, even a few parts per billion, Dr. Myers said. In addition, the dogs' nasal anatomy is very effective at sampling air, so much so that researchers are studying whether they can adapt it for a mechanical detector.

To be sure, dogs are but one animal with an extremely acute sense of smell (think European pigs and truffles), but being man's best friend helps with employment opportunities. "I don't think you could ever get a police officer to get a pig around a car for a narcotics search," said David Latimer, a dog trainer in Birmingham, Ala. [...]

The training process is similar for almost all odors. For months, the dogs are given multiple items in succession to smell. When they come to the target odor — bedbugs or mold, for example — they get a reward. Eventually they associate the odor with the reward. "All animals strive for food, sex and praise," Mr. Whitstine said. "We can't give them the middle one, but we can give them the food and praise." [...]

unfortunately, for brandy the link between smell and food must be direct. she'll wake up from the deepest sleep if someone unwraps a piece of cheese. so far, however, she hasn't helped me figure out where i put the latest netflix dvd.

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