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COVID Sniffing Dogs — Accuracy, Training, and Who Uses Them

Dog training

By now, most of us are aware of the miraculous capabilities of our beloved canines. From police dogs to guide dogs, rescue, medical alert dogs, therapy dogs, and much more, dogs have a lot more to bring to the table than just being our tail-wagging companions. They truly are man’s, woman’s, and child’s best friends.

In the wake of the COVID pandemic that has plagued our world, dogs have once again shown just how amazing they truly are. Here we will go over the ins and outs of the COVID sniffing dogs that are helping out around the world.

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The Beginning of COVID Sniffing Dogs

As reported, on December 12, 2019, several patients in Wuhan, Hubei Province in China began to experience shortness of breath and fever. By the beginning of 2020, the virus known as SARS-CoV2 began spreading across the world and changing life as we know it. A worldwide pandemic had begun.

Dogs are known for their keen sense of smell and the ways they assist us, humans, in our day-to-day lives. We could not begin to fathom just how differently they experience this world with our different sensory capabilities. Dogs can smell up to 100,000 times better than humans, their most powerful sense. This is why they were quickly enlisted to help us battle the pandemic in the hopes of saving lives and containing the spread of the virus.

police dog training
Image Credit: Piqsels

Types of Detection Dogs

We have been using our dog’s incredible sense of smell to help us out in a variety of different areas. Detection dogs are trained to use their senses to detect substances, while medical detection dogs are trained experimentally to sniff out diseases and ailments by picking up on the changes in chemical compounds within the body.

Different Scent Functions Used in Detection Dogs

Detection dogs are trained to recognize the scent of many animate and inanimate objects including but not limited to:

  • Drugs
  • Explosives
  • Fire accelerants
  • Firearms
  • Currency
  • Ivory
  • Mobile phones, SIM cards, USB drives
  • Endangered species
  • Invasive species
  • Certain plants
  • Wildlife scat
  • Mold
  • Fungi
  • Bed bugs
  • Termites
  • Human remains
  • Live humans
  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Parkinson’s Disease
  • Seizures

COVID-19

Medical detection dogs can detect volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which are emitted through skin, breath, and bodily fluids. Respiratory infections can be either viral or bacterial in origin. Regardless of the origin, the invasion of the pathogen results in the production and release of various volatile organic compounds.

It would only make sense that dogs would naturally have the capability to detect SARS-CoV2, the virus that leads to COVID-19, but this type of detection has never been used in the wake of a global pandemic.

The established knowledge of the capabilities of detection dogs led Penn researchers and veterinarians at the National Veterinary School of Alfort in France to begin training dogs to sniff out this novel virus in the spring of 2020 by using samples of urine and saliva. By November of 2020, they started training the dogs to detect the virus through sweat.divider-dog

Accuracy of SARS-CoV2 Detection Dogs

Studies are being conducted worldwide on the accuracy of dogs in the detection of SARS-CoV2. While many studies have suggested dogs effectively sniff out SARS-CoV2, the FDA has not approved this as a diagnostic tool for mass screening of the virus. But most of these findings have not yet been peer-reviewed or published, making it hard for the wider scientific community to evaluate the claims.

Studies From The United States

man training pet dog
Image Credit: Elena karetnikova, Shutterstock

Department of Defense

Scientists with the Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Chemical Biological Center partnered with the University of Pennsylvania and a variety of canine training facilities to provide aid against the fight of this novel virus.

This particular study involved participants being tested for COVID-19 and then sending in the T-shirts they had worn overnight. Eight dogs from ages 2 to 7 were chosen to participate in the study due to their motivation and ability to focus. Seven of the dogs were Labrador Retrievers, the other was a Belgian Malinois.

Interestingly, these incredible dogs were able to detect a COVID-positive person days before the rapid test was capable. A research scientist in the study, Jenna Gadberry, was quoted saying “so far, the levels they have been able to detect have been astounding.”

Florida International University

Florida International University performed a double-blind study using four trained dogs that ultimately showed a 97.5% accuracy in the detection of the virus by sniffing both people and different types of surfaces.

Studies from France

A study conducted by the French researchers suggests that trained dogs were able to detect the presence of the virus with a 97% accuracy. It was also revealed they were able to detect COVID-19 in patients that have had the virus for as long as a year and a half, which was also noted in studies that were conducted in the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

According to a preprint of this study, which has not been peer-reviewed as of yet, these trained dogs had an accuracy rate of 51.1%, detecting 23 out of 45 using only samples of armpit sweat from long-term Covid patients that had never been hospitalized due to the virus. No false-positives were detected out of 188 control samples presented in that portion of the study.

dog training
Image Credit: Piqsels

Studies from the United Kingdom

The United Kingdom has presented data from studies conducted by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine that collaborated with the charity, Medical Detection Dogs and Durham University showing an 82% to 94% success rate in trained dogs detecting COVID-19.

Studies from Germany

Studies conducted in Germany using detection dogs yielded an overall average detection rate of 94% in the presentation of 1012 randomized samples. In addition, these dogs were able to discriminate between samples of infected individuals (those yielding a positive test result) and non-infected individuals (those yielding a negative result) with an average diagnostic sensitivity of 82.63%.

Training

Selection

Before the training process begins for the detection of COVID-19 or any other type of scent detection, dogs must be selected for the training. Not all dogs are appropriate for scent detection, regardless of their breed. Each dog must be evaluated individually to determine whether they are suitable for this work.

It is important that a dog not only has a superior sense of smell, but also exhibits a high level of focus, motivation, and drive to hunt. Those selected will love searching and hunting for toys, a telltale sign they have what it takes.

Obedience

Obedience should begin for any dog in early puppyhood. Those that are selected for scent training are typically done so at a very early age, this will allow for the most thorough training regime and solid foundation for both proper obedience and scent detection training.

Scent Training

The length of time to train a scent detection dog varies depending on several factors, including the odor they are being trained to detect, the sample types being used, and the dog’s personality and learning style. Like humans, dogs are individuals that learn at different paces and require a personalized learning style.

The training process is reward-based and begins by introducing the dogs to samples of the scent then rewarding them with treats, praise, and sometimes play. For SARS-CoV2 detection, this means presenting positive samples, whether it be sweat, saliva, or urine. Once the dog has picked up on this particular scent, both positive and negative samples will be presented to further training.

Since human scent varies, medical detection dogs including COVID-19 sniffing dogs must be trained using samples from many different people with varying ages, gender, ethnicity, diet, and concurrent illnesses. Training protocol can vary among different programs, dogs, and trainers.

Different dogs on snow, unique female dog names unique male dog names
Image Credit: Rita_Kochmarjova, Shutterstock

Who Uses COVID Sniffing Dogs?

While COVID sniffing dogs have incredible success in the detection of SARS-CoV2, they have not been approved as an official medical diagnostic tool. They can, however, provide an initial screening that could later be confirmed with a test. This would help those that have been potentially infected to take proper precautions early on. Thus far, these dogs have been used in a variety of settings.

  • SchoolsResearchers at Florida International University teamed up with the Bristol County Sheriff’s office in the state of Massachusetts and trained two Labrador Retrievers to detect COVID-19 on the surfaces of items in classrooms.
  • Businesses—Some businesses have opted to employ the help of COVID-19 detection dogs to help detect the virus in employees as they transitioned back to the office from remote work.
  • CelebritiesEven some celebrities have been keeping celebrities company while on tour to help determine whether anyone involved with the tour is potentially positive for the virus before attending venues in different cities.

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Conclusion

It should be no surprise that in these unprecedented times, our beloved canines are coming to the rescue once again. Their incredible senses and capabilities are always leaving us in awe. These COVID-19 sniffing dogs and all other detection and service dogs are true blessings to humanity. It’s hard to tell what the future holds but one thing is for certain, we are always grateful for our dogs.


Featured Image Credit: John Tuesday, Unsplash

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