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Sniffing out the Corona Virus

Back in March, while we were all still adjusting to the shock of the pandemic, I remember reading some encouraging…

Back in March, while we were all still adjusting to the shock of the pandemic, I remember reading some encouraging news about researchers across the country who were training dogs to detect COVID-19. Since that time though, there has been little information about the progress of the dog testing, but a lot of belly-aching over about how current testing for the corona virus is unreliable. From what we know about a dog’s remarkable sense of smell, their ability to test for COVID-19 sounds like a no-brainer to me. Surely dogs can do this, right?

It has been well documented that dogs are adept at sniffing out certain cancers, identifying changes in blood sugar, and detecting seizures. This amazing sense of smell is what lead journalist, Maria Goodavage, to write her latest book, “Doctor Dogs: How our Best Friends Are Becoming Our Best Medicine.” Maria’s book highlights a vast array of special medical tasks that dogs can perform. Maria says that “Doctor Dogs are becoming our allies in the fight against dozens of physical and mental conditions.” The detection of COVID-19 has to be a priority within the medical community, wouldn’t you think?

So today I set out on a mission to find out just where we are with COVID sniffing dogs. I want to know how the training is going, and frankly, why are we not seeing them at work already? As a dog lover, I also have a special interest in the dogs themselves… how they live and how they are cared for.

Dogs and Medical Detection

Through my research, I have learned so much about medical working dogs. It’s encouraging. I want to be clear that we are not talking about animal testing, where the dog is subject to inhumane testing to determine how a substance, ingredient or device will affect human health… There is NO good in that. We are talking about medical working dogs that are able to use their natural abilities to willingly and eagerly participate in completely compassionate, humanitarian research.

I love the story of Asher, a hyperactive and unruly cocker spaniel that was in and out of about 7 homes before he was 3 years old. Asher was taken in by “Medical Detection Dogs”. He was just the kind of dog they were looking for… a dog that was bouncing off the walls because he wanted something to do. Asher was initially trained to detect malaria and is now being trained as a COVID-19 detector dog. Hopefully he can detect the COVID virus as well as he did malaria. This out-of-control pup is now content and calm. He has a job to do.

Many seemingly “unadoptable” dogs are adopted by these-types of research foundations. Like Asher, a dog that does not get the mental stimulation they need can develop behavioral problems such as hyperactivity, impulsiveness and anxiety. It is important to give them something to do to refocus this energy. Unwanted behavior can be modified when a dog is able to work. It is exactly what Asher needed.

There are many breeds used in training for medical detection, but it is interesting to me that in the US, we seem to use Labrador Retrievers predominantly. In Australia, they seem partial to German Shepherds. I can’t help but wonder why we aren’t seeing more bloodhounds and beagles. If you follow the rescues, beagles particularly (and sadly), are a dime a dozen. These adorable little hounds would love nothing better than to have a job to do.

By what I am able to gather, medical working dogs are very well cared for. In Maria Goodavage’s book, she visited various laboratories and training centers and found that the dogs were profoundly dedicated to their people and their mission. They were excited, and they were having fun. The dogs are respected by their human “colleagues”. Maria witnessed that rewards of toys and treats were given with enthusiasm and love.

How dogs are trained to sniff COVID-19

I have to share this excerpt from the Penn Vet Working Dog center in Philadelphia PA regarding a dog’s training for COVID-10 scent detection: “We start by allowing the dogs to sniff the container from a COVID-positive patient. That happens and suddenly a bell goes off, treats descend, and it’s a party. So, the dog’s like: whoa, what did I do to earn all of these amazing treats? But they have no idea. So we do that again and again with positive samples. Then, we introduce a sample that is not COVID-19 positive. They sniff, and think: Where’s my treat? What’s different about this? They start to realize that there is something unique about the samples from COVID-19 patients.” Doesn’t that sound like fun? We have witnessed that kind of enthusiasm at Holiday Barn Pet Resorts during our Enrichment activities. The dogs are so excited about participating in these kinds of exercises.

Some medical working dogs live in homes with their families and “go to work” each day. The ones living in the medical research facilities also seem to be well cared for and happy. If you visit some of the Facebook pages for medical detection dogs, they look healthy and happy. Many of these dogs have “socializers” as well as “trainers”. Their socializers take them for walks, to events, and expose them to the real world so they are well-balanced and comfortable in any situation. The “Medical Detection Dogs” company follows the 5 freedoms standard for their dogs: These Five Freedoms are globally recognized as the gold standard in animal welfare, encompassing both the mental and physical well-being of animals. They are FREEDOM FROM HUNGER AND THIRST; FREEDOM FROM PAIN, INJURY AND DISEASE; FREEDOM FROM DISCOMFORT (temperature, hard bedding, etc.); FREEDOM FROM FEAR AND DISTRESS; and FREEDOM TO EXPRESS NORMAL BEHAVIOR. That all sounds good… I just hope they get lots of affection as well.

So, where are we now with COVID sniffing dogs?

From what I have read, there is a lot more to training and deploying a medical scent detection dog than I could have ever guessed. It’s very time consuming. First, the researchers must nail-down the virus. They collect samples from people with the virus, that being sweat, saliva, or urine. Then they treat the sample to make sure the virus is inactive so it will not make the dogs sick (despite evidence thus far that dogs are unlikely to get the virus). Even so, they have to contain the sample so that the dog does not have direct contact. Next, they need to find dogs specially trained in scent detection. And if they are not specifically trained for scent detection, add another month or two for teaching… And after all that, the training just begins!

Okay, now fast forward several months… The dogs are trained and ready to go. What happens then? Do they just let the dogs randomly sniff people in an establishment? No, that wouldn’t work. As we know, our dogs are not exactly prudent about where they sniff. More time is needed to determine exactly how the dogs’ sniff tests would be administered in the various circumstances in which they are used. There is also evidence that what happens in the lab may not adequately prepare the dogs for what they need to do in the real world. So there’s that. And then they need to determine exactly how the results will be used, once completed. Okay, I get it. I need to be patient.

The first actual deployment of COVID-10 sniffing dogs is in Dubai, UAE. Teams of dogs and their trainers are posted at the Dubai airport. Samples are taken from the visitors and the dog’s sniff the samples rather than the people themselves. They are reporting 92% accuracy in detecting COVID-19.

Dominique Grandjean at France’s National Veterinary School of Alfort, has been training detector dogs to sniff out traces of the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) since March. They report that most of their dogs can detect a positive virus sample from a line of negative samples with 100% accuracy. The dogs have not yet been deployed in France, but they’re getting close!

We are running a little behind here in the US, or maybe we are just very particular. The most promising research that I have read is via Penn Vet’s Working Dog Center. In an article by the CBS News station in Philadelphia late last month, Penn Vet researchers hope to have canine screening ready to go by July…that would be 2021. Eeek! I sure hope we are not still battling this virus another year. Penn Vet has been receiving a lot of interest from organizations, entities, municipalities, states and even other countries, all expressing a desire to employ their COVID-19 canine scent detectors.

We will keep you posted when canine COVID-19 detectors begin their work in the United States.

Would you like to see these amazing dogs in action? Check out the following YouTube videos:

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