Searching Down Mattress Bugs, Serving to Telephones Ring


Pest control experts know that not every bed bug survey means bed bugs are present. But an inspection can still turn up something interesting – and possibly more lucrative.

Such was the case with Scott Palatnik, owner of Long Island Bed Bug Inspections (trading as NYC Bedbug Inspection Dogs), who was called to the Park Slope neighborhood of northwest Brooklyn, NY about a year ago. When Palatnik told the customer that her house had no bed bugs, they continued talking until the customer said, “I’d like to write a story about you — I happen to be a writer for the New York Times.”

Progress wasn’t instant, but a year later the phone rang. The Times wanted to schedule the interview. Palatnik shared his and his company’s story, as well as the story of his dog, aptly named Hunter, with Shaina Feinberg in a three-hour interview. Illustrator Julia Rothman “turned me and Hunter into a cartoon,” Palatnik recalls.

Three weeks later, the team appeared on page three of the Sunday business section of The New York Times under the headline “The Bedbug Hunter,” a likely reference to his canine partner and his profession. The article included illustrations and vivid details that outlined the background, knowledge, and experience of Palatnik’s bed bug inspection.

A BUSINESS BOOST. The article fueled some business, Palatnik said. Clients say they’ve seen him in the Times and want to work with him. His able and affable partner Hunter receives a similar reception.

“You love him — people see him and fall in love,” Palatnik said, adding that Hunter could probably sign autographs all day — that is, if he could write. What Hunter can do is track down bed bugs or give customers peace of mind that they don’t have them.

Palatnik noted that search conditions can affect a dog’s ability to find the bugs, with a 75-95 percent success rate, depending on conditions such as airflow (including the use of an air conditioner or fan), the number of bugs, customer clutter, trapped versus released odors and more.

“Dogs aren’t the solution, they’re part of the solution,” said Palatnik, who complements Hunter’s efforts with a visual search. Between the two, he estimates his company’s accuracy at 95-97 percent, based on 12 years of experience working with bed bugs and dogs.

HOW HE GET HERE. Palatnik’s experience of studying bed bugs developed – as experience often does – in a rather unusual way. An outgoing, approachable New Yorker, Palatnik described himself as a ski bum and self-taught professional chef who wandered and wandered before returning to New York in 2001 to work as a private chef in the Hamptons. For several months after 9/11, he volunteered for Michael Lomonaco, chef and director of Windows on the World, the restaurant atop the World Trade Center’s North Tower that lost employees and patrons when the Twin Towers collapsed. Her rescue kitchen fed firefighters and led Palatnik to a job in the East Village. But fast-forward almost a decade, the real estate market collapsed and the successful chef was out of a job. During this time, Palatnik received a call from his landlord telling him that his building had bed bugs.

Palatnik admits that he “knew nothing about bed bugs at the time” except that they were difficult to get rid of. He learned that some companies were using dogs to find the pests and intrigued he decided to start his own business. And so he headed to the races, or more specifically to North Carolina, where he met Vila, a 3-year-old German shepherd who was available to him through a company that trained her in bed bug detection. The Czech-born dog, formerly used in police work, was bred for drive, the inner mechanism that drives a dog to take certain actions.

“I thought I was going to get a yellow lab,” Palatnik said, noting that several guys before him had done just that. But the lab designated for him was sick at the time, so they offered an option, “and with that, they rolled out this German shepherd, beautiful.”

Palatnik reluctantly feared that a police-trained German shepherd might intimidate customers, even if she also knew how to find bed bugs. Then someone patted him on the back and said he just got the best possible dog. That’s how Palatnik met Joe Nicholas (aka Joe Nick), a master dog trainer who had worked with the New Jersey Department of Corrections for more than 25 years, using dogs to locate fugitives and missing persons. Palatnik confirms that Nicholas not only fell in love with Vila but also got to know bed bugs and bed bug detection work this weekend. The two forged a relationship that has helped Palatnik learn, grow, and become comfortable in his field.

“He was a godsend,” Palatnik said, noting that Nicholas’ background in canine scent detection is “quite unmatched in the United States,” as evidenced by his role as a court witness who can separate scent-detection myths from fact.

He “taught me everything I know,” Palatnik said. Some of this happened over the following 14 days of training, during which Palatnik, Nicholas and others worked eight hours a day with the dogs, learning the art and science of dog scent detection, and getting to know their new partners by discussing what’s going on inside them could the heads and bodies of the dogs and what was in their own minds and minds. Tests ensured that the trainees and their companions were ready to get down to business.

Continuous practice, work and study have helped Hunter succeed as a bed bug detection dog.

© Karen Sterling

A LEARNING CURVE. Palatnik remarked that he “felt ready right away, but I also understood right away that I had a lot to learn.” He knew the relevance of further education, good contacts to practice and, of course, practice. He also said that online media, educational courses, lectures and summits on bed bugs complemented and enhanced his initial education.

Palatnik admits, “It’s not rocket science, it’s just a mistake,” but also knows there’s more to his business than just buying a dog—continuous practice, work, and learning can lead to success in his field. But time also brings changes and adjustments. Three years ago he lost Vila and met Hunter.

“He was 1 year old when I got him,” Palatnik said, noting that he found Hunter through Nicholas. “He had been marked with a strong predator-prey instinct because of his drives.” From that instinct, “it becomes a matter of maintaining the training and practicing,” Palatnik said, noting that activity plus reward can improve overall performance.

Hunter works off a leash but is easy to control in New York’s small apartments. Palatnik shares the process with clients before bringing in his partner. After introducing himself, he explains that he’ll be “bringing a 70-pound yellow Lab … who doesn’t want to do anything but lick your face.”

Some choose to stay and watch, standing still so Hunter can go about his business. Then Hunter enters.

“He storms into the room and starts sniffing everything,” Palatnik said. He notes that dogs perceive a space by smelling a space, just as humans perceive a space with their eyes. Just a few scent molecules can emit an odor. The dog walks through it, looking for that scent – and the reward that comes with it.

WORK AND FUN. Palatnik, who posts a video of the process on his website, enjoys his job and describes it a bit like a game. “The dog is the player, I am the playmaker and finding the bed bugs is the game.”

When the pest is found, the dog sits down and awaits its reward. However, as with any interaction, handler and dog must know each other. “A big part of it is about the bonding, the relationship,” said Palatnik, who can read Hunter and distinguish his excitement of finding a ball from looking for prey.

Although small apartments are often their workplaces, Palatnik and Hunter have also seen multi-million dollar penthouses, offices, hospitals, retail or department stores, hotels and more. He also subcontracts for pest control companies that do not own dogs but wish to use dogs in certain situations. “People have faith in the dog, they know about the dogs,” Palatnik said, noting that TV commercials show bed bug detection dogs. As a subcontractor, he and Hunter find the bugs that the contractor handles.

Days often begin with paperwork, phone calls, and appointment confirmations. Then it’s off to those appointments until the day ends with more phone calls, reports, and paperwork.

They love him – people see him and fall in love,” said Scott Palatnik of his bed bug sniffer dog, Hunter. Palatnik said Hunter could sign autographs all day (if he had that skill).

“With every inspection I do, I try to enlighten them,” Palatnik said of his clients. When Hunter alerts, Palatnik will comb the area with a flashlight and magnifying glass, then tell the customer how to do that in the future, maybe saving himself a phone call. Many customers prefer the security of a pro – or, in the case of the Palatnik and Hunter, two pros.

The two share the living space and Hunter lives like any other pet. “I try to keep it that way,” Palatnik said, referring to himself as Hunter’s sidekick. The two practice, which keeps Hunter excited, interested, and committed to his game.

The former professional chef, who still enjoys cooking, is happy to have found another profession that he loves.

“I like being in charge of my own destiny, being my own boss,” he said. He also enjoys helping customers and restoring their peace of mind, noting that customers often smile when he and Hunter leave them. And this is the reward for Palatnik, who appreciates the counter-deal. He was also delighted to receive a unique birthday present from his siblings this year – the original art plaques from his and Hunter’s feature in the Sunday Times.

The author is a Cleveland, Ohio-based writer.