PORTLAND — Standing in a vacant second-story apartment, Jon Locke announced that the place was free of bedbugs.

Using a 2-year-old beagle named Pops — who has been trained in the ways of scent detection — Locke had just guided a complete sniff search of the place and found nothing buggy going on.

The apartment had recently undergone bedbug eradication using heat as the weapon — done by a Portland company, Sleep Tight. Locke and Pops were hired to verify that the eradication worked.

Phew, I thought. No bedbugs here.

“This is a good time to do some training with Pops,” said Locke, dog handler and co-owner of Northeast K9 Detectives, a Maine-based scent detection company specializing in bedbugs. “We train him with live bedbugs every day.”

At that moment, Locke reached into a small pack hanging around his waist and pulled out a glass vial containing a half dozen or so bedbugs. I strained my eyes to see the bugs among what looked like many brown specks.

“That’s bedbug defecation,” Locke said.

The vial had a net fastened over the top, so the live bug scent could get out to Pops’ nose. But the bedbugs could not get out, Locke told me.

Doesn’t carrying bedbugs around all day creep you out? I asked Locke.

“I got used to it,” said Locke, 20, who owns the business with his father, John Locke. “There’s really very little chance you’ll get bedbugs doing this job.”

I would have rather heard “no chance whatsoever.”

To give Pops his training session, Locke told me to hide the vial of bugs under an empty cardboard box in a corner of the living room, while Pops was on a leash in another room. Then I brought Pops into the room, at the other end, and said, “Find your bees, find your bees.” That’s his command for sniffing out bedbugs.

But perhaps I was too playful in my tone, or not authoritative enough, because when I gave the command, Pops sort of scurried about in an unfocused manner. When Locke — who lives with Pops 24 hours a day — gave the command, Pops put his nose to the floor and hurriedly worked the room until he got to the box hiding the vial. Then he began to scratch furiously on the floor, signifying he’d found something.

“Good boy, good boy,” said Locke, feeding Pops handfuls of dog food as a reward.

Locke’s job is pretty specialized. He and Pops spend their days looking for bedbugs, sometimes searching 40 to 60 apartments or commercial spaces or hotel rooms a day. Each room takes only minutes to search. At times they go into rundown apartments in downtown areas, and at others they search million-dollar homes. They work in Maine and also travel around New England. The service ranges in price from about $75 to $150 an hour.

Locke said he once did a job in a home worth millions that had a bedbug problem because the home’s owner also owned hotels. And hotels can have bedbugs.

Nationally, bedbugs have been grabbing headlines and showing up in college dorms, hotels, apartments and day care centers. September is being declared National Bed Bug Awareness Month.

“It’s not something that just happens in rundown places, it can happen to anyone,” Locke said.

All Northeast K9 does is detection, not eradication. Locke says to him it makes sense for a company to do one or the other, but not both.

“To me that would be like correcting your own test,” Locke said.

Before we brought Pops into the apartment, Locke told me to go in first and “clear” the place for the dog’s safety. This is an important part of the job, he said. He told me to look for fans that have been left on, or windows left open, or anything sharp on the floor.

This apartment was having some work done, so I found a scraping blade on the floor and a few nails. In another apartment we did later, I found two ceiling fans on. They couldn’t hurt the dog, but they could mess up the scent, so Locke told me to turn them off.

Before I started following around Locke and Pops, Locke’s father had told me that if I really wanted to be sure I didn’t get any bugs on me, the best things to do were not sit down and not lean against a wall. For further precautions, I could take off my clothes and throw them in a plastic bag, then throw the clothes in a hot dryer. That would kill the bugs.

Even though we didn’t find any bugs, I did all that. It was overkill, I know. But the thought of bedbugs in my clothes made me nervous.

I asked Locke why he thought people got so worried about bedbugs. Locke told me they aren’t believed to spread disease. But they bite and can make you really itchy.

Plus, there’s the creep factor.

“The thought of bugs in your bed just really creeps people out,” Locke said.

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at: [email protected]