The dogs are advertised as a reliable and relatively inexpensive method to test large numbers of people in a short period of time, for example at airports, hospitals or sports facilities. In late January, the Miami Heat basketball team used COVID-19 detection dogs to screen fans at a game against the Los Angeles Clippers. If a dog sat next to a ticket holder, it meant the virus had been discovered and that ticket holder was denied entry to the arena.
Perhaps even more important for nursing homes and senior communities, the dogs are seen as an important future tool for tracking down other common health problems such as influenza and urinary tract infections – viral and bacterial problems known to affect seniors.
“Additional protective layer”
At Benton House in Sugar Hill, Marshall uses a different method of signaling the virus. He smells a sterile swab with which a sweat sample was taken from residents. When a handler asks if they smell COVID-19, they either tap their nose or visually keep their gaze on the handler’s right or left hand. The one on the left means yes, the one on the right means no.
Mike Allard, CEO of the Benton House family of older shared apartments, reached out to dog trainers after reading about dogs sniffing COVID-19 in an article found on Twitter.
He worked with the Georgia-based nonprofit that previously trained dogs to detect seizures or changes in blood sugar. Allard, who had donated to the dog training company over the past few years, initially provided seed capital for training, vaccinations, food and meals for five dogs that were to be included in the COVID-19 case. In addition to the Golden Retriever Marshall, the other four dogs will be housed in other Benton House communities in Atlanta. The dogs are used to detect the virus in residents and staff, and ultimately visitors.
“We’d like to see this in all of our churches at some point,” Allard says. “We are very keen to see families return for visits.”
Testing is currently focused, where possible, on staff and residents who are showing symptoms. The current goal is to test every employee in every shift, as well as guests and residents as required.
Residents are happy that Marshall’s nose is being added to other, more conventional testing protocols.
“It’s good to have that extra layer of protection,” says Skelton.
Promising science related to canine virus detection skills
Research is being carried out around the world to determine how reliable specially trained dogs are when it comes to detecting the coronavirus.
So far the evidence is promising.
In a proof-of-concept study conducted in Paris and Beirut, researchers took sweat samples from the forearms of patients from five hospitals. The dogs with the least amount of training identified the COVID-19 samples more than 76 percent of the time. Two dogs with prior training in detecting cancer cells were able to detect the virus every time.
Meanwhile, a team of dog trainers in a mountain village in the Czech Republic reported a 95 percent success rate in detecting COVID-19 – from samples obtained by rubbing a piece of cotton against human skin.
Dogs trained to recognize smells can accurately sense low levels of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, found in human blood, saliva, urine, or breath that have been linked to various diseases, infections, and tumors, according to Cynthia Otto, director of the University of Pennsylvania School’s Penn Vet Veterinary Working Dog Center.
Even so, at this point in time, COVID-19 detection dogs are viewed by many as a complementary tool rather than a substitute for extensive clinical testing.