Like most Labrador retrievers, when 4-year-old Jordanna comes into a room, she is an explosion of energy, her yellow tail wagging and her wet nose sniffing anything and anyone she encounters.

But it’s not dog biscuits, cats, squeaky toys or sticks she’s after.

She’s sniffing for bedbugs.

And the demand for her services is rising as the population, and awareness, of bedbugs seems to be on the rise in the region.

Sarah Maffei, program manager and a dog handler for Readfield-based Merrills Detector Dog Services, said the company has been working with dogs for about 10 years and added bedbug detecting to its services of drug and explosives detection a few years ago. Bedbug detection has risen to account for more than 50 percent of the company’s business, with at least one call every week and often several bedbug-detection jobs a week.

Those jobs included a recent one in which Jordanna confirmed the presence of bedbugs in three offices, located in the same suite, in the General Assistance offices at Augusta City Center.

City officials said they brought in the bedbug-sniffing dog because it is the most efficient way to be certain whether a building has bedbugs in it. The city also periodically has public buildings, including Lithgow Public Library, sniffed out by bedbug-detecting dogs as a preventive measure, to make sure those buildings remain bedbug-free; or, if some of the blood-sucking pests are detected, to keep them from spreading and becoming an infestation.

AUGUSTA PROBLEMS

Merrills’ business, noted Chris Voynik, business development manager, is hired only to have its dogs detects bedbugs, explosives and drugs. What to do with those things once they are identified is up to the client – though obviously, when bedbugs are found, an exterminator generally needs to be called in.

Jordanna has been called to Augusta City Center twice in recent weeks, most recently July 28, when she found bugs in part of the first-floor office suite where they hadn’t been detected in a previous visit by a city-hired pest control company.

Ralph St. Pierre, finance director and assistant city manager, said the bedbugs might have moved to that office after other parts of that office suite were sprayed with bedbug-killing chemicals. After the sniff test, he said, “we resprayed the General Assistance (office suite) and we’ll wait another two weeks, then have them come back and sniff again.”

The affected General Assistance offices have been closed off, and those services moved to elsewhere in the building.

Bedbugs feed on blood and can go months without feeding. They can be difficult to find, hiding in mattresses, flooring and wallpaper, and even harder to get rid of once they’re established.

In May, a bedbug infestation was reported at two boarding houses on Water Street in Augusta, prompting the city to adopt an emergency ordinance to give city officials more power to require landlords, and tenants, to take steps to get rid of the bugs. City councilors have before them a proposal for a permanent, revised version of the emergency bedbug ordinance.

TOY REWARDS

For Jordanna, her work is play, and vice versa.

Maffei said the dogs, no matter what they are trained to detect, do so because they enjoy it. They are trained with a reward system. When they find what they’re trained to sniff out, whether it is explosives, bedbugs or drugs, they are given their toy as a reward. In the case of Jordanna and Phiona, a 3-year-old explosives-detecting black Labrador that Maffei said she is so close to “she’s like my child,” that’s a tennis ball attached to a short piece of rope, good for playing tug-o-war.

“It’s fun, happy, positive for them,” Maffei said of the dogs’ training and detection work. “You make it a game for them.”

The dogs are first trained to find their toy, hidden by a trainer. Then the toy is replaced with an item with an odor trainers want the dog to detect; and over time, the dogs learn to detect the odor, knowing that when they find it, they’ll be rewarded with their toy.

The business trains its own dogs, with seven based in Readfield, including three puppies in training, and 32 at various locations around the country.

The dogs take three to five minutes to check a room for the presence of bedbugs, or even just one bedbug, a job that would take a well-trained, highly capable person about 45 minutes.

The process is roughly the same for explosives and drug detection, though bedbug-detecting dogs have only one odor to detect: live bedbugs. Drug- and explosives-detecting dogs must be able to detect a wider range of odors.

Jordanna, Phiona and the other detector dogs sit when they find their target, and they wait for their trainer to come find the item. They don’t move until they are rewarded with their toy.

HOUSEHOLD PETS

Jordanna is Merrills Detector Dog Services’ only bedbug-detecting dog in Maine, but one of the three puppies, Annie, a border collie, will be taught to detect bedbugs.

Five of their Maine-based dogs are Labs. The other two, both puppies, are border collies.

Maffei said they use Labs because they simply like Labs, and because they are usually friendly and not intimidating to clients.

Clients generally are asked not to interfere with the dogs while they are working, so the dogs’ full attention will be on detecting.

Jordanna’s handler and trainer, Kendra Laliberte, said Jordanna has detected bedbugs not just in buildings, but on people, too.

“Our dogs aren’t shy about detecting on a person,” Laliberte said.

To demonstrate Jordanna’s skills, Maffei hid a vial of live bedbugs, obtained from a research facility and kept in a safe, three times in different locations in a conference room. Jordanna took less than a minute to find each one, sitting next to the vial and awaiting her reward.