Gracie is a terrier specially trained to sniff out bedbugs in the city.
Gracie, a 12-pound Parsons Jack Russell terrier, has come to Milwaukee with a mission.
Sure, a lot of canines are trained to sniff out bombs, drugs or dead bodies.
But as the newest member of the Housing Authority's environmental services department, Gracie's job can literally be described as: Don't let the bedbugs bite.
Acquired from a specialized canine training center in Florida for $10,000, Gracie can go to an apartment door and smell if there's a bedbug or live bedbug eggs inside, said Bill Klein, the supervisor of the Housing Authority's environmental services. He introduced the dog Wednesday at the annual meeting of the authority's board. For her public debut, Gracie wore a light blue jacket with an official Housing Authority logo and a uninterested look.
"The dog can find an insect the size of a pinhead and can then get to the spot on the chair or the bed or whatever," he said.
"Bedbugs are a horrible problem all around the world because they are hard to control because they have extreme tolerance to most pesticides," Klein explained in an interview later.
Bedbugs also are hard to detect, he said.
Some people can have an allergic reaction to the bug bites, which can cause them to scratch. In some cases, they can then develop an antibiotic-resistant staph infection that can be "very dangerous," he added.
Bedbugs travel widely and can be picked up on suitcases, in hotels and motels, dorm rooms, day care centers, just about anywhere, he said. "By the time you know you have them, you have a large infestation."
Klein believes Gracie is the only dog in the state doing bedbug duty and the first at a public housing authority. He's rather sure of that because he said he's the only handler listed as passing the certified training in the National Entomology Scent Detection Canine Association.
Pepe Peruyero, CEO of the J & K Canine Academy in High Springs, Fla, where the housing authority purchased the dog, said in the last 2 1/2 years, some hotels and businesses have started using dogs for bug detection because bedbug outbreaks have reached "epidemic proportions."
He said he knows of no other public housing authority that's done so. "It speaks volumes of the Milwaukee Housing Authority that it's taken the initiative to go above and beyond what any other housing authorities in the country have done to provide services using the latest state-of-the-art technology in the detection of bedbugs," he said.
If the $10,000 price tag seems steep, Klein defends it as an efficient investment in public health. By comparison, dogs trained to track narcotics and as patrol dogs cost also cost about $10,000, which includes the dog, training and certification, said Larry Filo, who coordinates the Fox Valley Technical College canine training program and owns the Steinig TalKennels in Campbellsport.
Gracie's been sniffing out bedbugs for the past month and has gone on more than 150 inspection missions, he said, although he declined to give a bug count.
She's a key element in the authority's "war on bedbugs," he said. "We think it's prudent and cost-effective because it can take five hours or more to go through a unit looking for bedbugs where there are no visual signs."
In all, the Housing Authority oversees 5,300 units of public housing, says executive director Tony Perez. The funds to acquire Gracie came from fees the housing authority has generated, such as developer fees attached to the housing tax credits used to build Convent Hill, and an environmental service contract that the Housing Authority has for City Hall, and other revenue streams the authority has developed to pay for additional services, he said.
"The advantage is that the animal can pinpoint bedbugs without having to go through all the units in a building, or trying to treat a whole building with various methods like raising the temperature in a building to 120 degrees," he said.
For example, bedbugs were found in one chair in a management office in one building and the chair was removed within minutes, he said.
Klein has to constantly keep Gracie up to snuff with her training, which is reinforced three times a day. And he also now has a constant companion, since Gracie lives with him and goes everywhere he goes - even on vacation.
Licks and Sniffs, Sasha