Dogs are blessed with a remarkable sense of smell and they can identify scents an estimated 100,000 times better than humans. The canine’s talented nose has been vital for search and rescue operations as well as assisting law enforcement agencies and the military with finding drugs, cadavers, firearms and explosives. Detection dog are utilized daily to find contraband foods, plants and other substances at airports and sea ports. Dogs can also detect cancer and malaria in humans. Seizure response dogs assist people with seizure disorders by standing guard during the seizure or seeking help. Some dogs are able to predict seizures. These remarkable dogs warn people before a seizure starts so the person can move to a safe place to sit down. Dogs are also detecting changes in blood sugar levels for people with diabetes.
Elian Peltier, a reporter in the London Bureau of the New York Times newspaper wrote a column about a pilot program regarding the use of dogs for detecting coronavirus at the airport in Helsinki, Finland. The aim of the program is to detect infections using sweat collected on wipes from arriving passengers. Travelers arriving at the airport were offered a voluntary coronavirus test that takes 10 seconds with no nasal swab needed because the test is done by a dog! Other international airports have been using other methods to detect the virus in travelers (saliva screenings, temperature checks and nasal swabs).The Finnish researchers say that using dogs could prove to be cheaper, faster and more effective.
After passengers arriving from abroad have collected their luggage, they are invited to wipe their necks to collect sweat samples and leave the wipes in a box. Behind a wall, a dog trainer puts the box beside the cans containing different scents and the dog goes to work. The dogs can detect a coronavirus-infected patient in 10 seconds and the entire process takes a minute to complete. If the dog signals a positive result, the passenger is directed to the airport’s health center for a free virus test.
“During the middle of the pandemic, training dogs to detect COVID-19 became the obvious choice,” said Anna Hielm-Bjorkman, a researcher at the University of Helsinki who is monitoring the canine trial.
She feels that the dogs are doing their job. During the first stage of the trial, the dogs could sniff out the virus in a person who is asymptomatic, or before the symptoms appear. The dogs detected COVID-19 at an earlier stage than a PCR test which is the most widely used diagnostic tool for the detecting the coronavirus. The sniffer dogs who are trained to recognize the virus’s scent, detect it by smelling urine or sweat samples, according to the University of Helsinki.
The July/August 2020 issue of The American Kennel Club’s magazine, “Family Dog,' featured an article about a training program for dogs to detect coronavirus at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center at the University of Pennsylvania School Of Veterinary Medicine, where scientists and trainers are working to find out if dogs can detect coronavirus. Dr. Cynthia Otto, DVM, Ph.D., serves as the director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center at the university and is part of a team training eight Labrador retrievers to become coronavirus detection dogs.
Trainer Pat Nolan of Tactical Directional Canine worked with breeders nationwide to select the dogs and all the training takes place at his Maryland facility with the support and guidance of the Penn Vet staff. The dogs range in age from 12 to 18 months and have never been trained in scent detection. The dogs are learning odor imprinting and will sniff out the difference between positive and negative COVID-19 saliva and urine samples from the lab before testing their skills on humans. The program started in April and hopes it will provide a novel way to detect infections.
The Penn team’s research funded largely by private donations is based on two established principles: that changes in our health often alter the way we smell; and that dogs, with 50 times as many smell receptors as people, make great biosensors with a proven ability to detect not only drugs and explosives but some diseases such as hidden cancers, the sudden shifts in blood sugar levels caused by diabetes, parasitic infections like malaria, and bacterial and viral infections including, potentially, the coronavirus which causes the disease COVID-19. The work, draws on disciplines including neuroscience, chemistry, nanotechnology, and animal cognition, also reveals how much we still don’t about the way the sense of smell works.
”It’s very poorly understood," said A.T. Charlie Johnson, a Penn physicist who was working with Otto before the pandemic to create an artificial nose. Electronic noses have many advantages over canine noses: they don’t need trained handlers, can work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and health is not of concern when detecting a zoonotic disease like the novel coronavirus, which has reportedly transferred from humans to other mammals including dogs, cats and minks.
The dogs learn to distinguish odors by sniffing cans attached to a scent wheel and receive a food reward for alerting on the correct target odors in the cans. During a training session that Otto conducted, the trainees performed with stunning accuracy until one instance where a Labrador suddenly froze, head up and ears pricked in front of a can containing a urine sample from a hospitalized patient who had tested negative for the COVID-19 virus. The alert appeared to be a mistake. However, when Otto went back to the hospital to research the person’s history, it turned out the patient had previously tested positive for COVID-19 suggesting there may have been some lingering odor from the previous infection.
There is a phrase in dog training that especially applies to scent detection: “Trust your dog.”
The continuing evolution in dog scent work training shows that trust is well placed.
Iris Katz serves as a member of the board of directors and as an educational facilitator for the Humane Society of Carroll County. Her column appears on the third Sunday of the month.