Meet Sparta, police dog turned bed bug hunter

Sparta’s handler predicts her work will increase with borders opening up.

Carmen Ponto

Duane Hutt poses with Sparta, the Belgian Malinois
Duane Hutt works with Sparta, who began her career as a police dog before becoming a bedbug detection dog. (Submitted photo)

As Canada opens its borders to travellers, some smaller, unwanted hitchhikers could begin to make their way in too. But Sparta, a police dog turned bedbug hunter, is on the case.

Sparta, a three-year-old Belgian malinois, was raised for the police K9 unit by Winnipeg police officer Justin Malec. The plan was to train her to chase down suspects who flee a scene after stabbings and violent incidents.

Malec started Sparta’s training by simply getting her used to a variety of people and situations. He said the goal was to make her a fearless alpha dog. 

“Every call I went to on general patrol, the dog was in a crate in the back seat, and if I had to arrest a suspect, the suspect went back there with the puppy,” Malec said.

Malec added that due to the crate, both the suspect and dog were always safe.

Typically, the next steps in Sparta’s training would involve training her to track a suspect. 

The suspect’s scent, however, isn’t actually what the dogs look for. 

“What they’re actually tracking is ground disturbance,” Malec explained. He said that even on pavement, molecules get stirred up when a suspect runs through. That’s what the dogs smell.

“From 6-12 inches off the ground, those molecules are floating through the air.” 

From there, the dogs are trained to bite down – just once – on a suspect’s arm, and hold them in place while police descend on them.

Sparta never made it that far in her training. Before she was a year old, a routine x-ray showed minor hip issues, which meant she wasn’t going to be able to tolerate the extreme physicality of the job. 

Bed bug hunter

David Bessason, owner of ProK9 in Winnipeg, heard that Sparta had great potential. He happened to need a dog to hunt down a different target – bed bugs.

Sparta got the job.

ProK9 is a contractor in Winnipeg offering dog tracking services to private residents and corporate clients. Its team of dogs sniff out bed bugs and explosives. 

One of the company’s long-term contracts is with Winnipeg’s Canada Life Centre, where the Winnipeg Jets play their NHL home games. Before every game, Bessason or Duane Hutt, one of his employees, bring dogs to sniff out the arena. They have yet to find any explosives. 

Hutt works full time in a Manitoba correctional institution. In his spare time, he works with Sparta and the other detection dogs. He sees it as much more than a job. 

“This is the type of job, if you’re gonna do it, you better love it or you’re not gonna be any good at it,” Hutt said.

A brown dog with a black snout sits on the ground near a police vehicle
Sparta was raised as a police dog. Now she tracks bedbugs for proK9 in Winnipeg.

The principles of detecting ground disturbance and bedbugs are the same. Sparta does only bug detection. Dogs can only do one type of tracking, Hutt said – but she’s great at it.

ProK9 charges $175 an hour for two dogs and their handler to search a residence or building for bedbugs. During that time, Hutt tears apart beds, furniture and other common hot spots, before bringing Sparta in. 

Sparta is fast. Unlike a suspect’s ground disturbance or explosives, which give off a strong scent, “with bedbugs they need to be right on top of it to sniff it,” Hutt explained. If she finds a bedbug, she will stop and lie down to indicate she has found it. 

Once Sparta detects bedbugs, people’s options are to use heat or chemical treatment to kill them. ProK9 doesn’t treat the bugs, but it can make recommendations for those that do. 

“It can be very hard on the psyche; it can be very hard to sleep and get rest.”

Dwayne Hutt

Reactions run the gamut when Sparta finds a bug in a client’s home. Clients are often relieved to have finally found the source of the mysterious itching that has been plaguing them.

“It can be very hard on the psyche.; it can be very hard to sleep and get rest,” Hutt said.

Hutt predicts a rise in calls once travel picks up again, and people – and bedbugs – start moving from bed to bed. But Hutt, Sparta and the other detection dogs will be ready. 

“I just want to give people that peace of mind,” Hutt said. “You need to feel secure and safe in your home.”

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