Dogs being trained to sniff-out COVID at Maui non-profit

Coronavirus

HONOLULU (KHON2) — Canines have helped law enforcement agencies sniff out drugs and explosives but researchers are now training dogs to help them find people with COVID-19.

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The study is a collaboration between Queen’s Medical Health Center and Maui based non-profit organization Assistance Dogs of Hawaii. They are part of a larger study with Medical Detection Dogs UK, and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

The organization’s executive director Maureen Maurer said four dogs are participating in the study and will be trained through positive reinforcement. The non-profit organization has participated in past studies where dogs have been trained to detect certain bacteria.

“They get treats when they find the target scent,” Maurer said. “So we make it really positive and enjoyable for them. And we love just seeing the dogs do what they were born to do, you know, to use their nose to locate items.”

In addition to the dogs, researchers are asking for human volunteers in Hawaii. The study requires hundreds of positive and negative samples of sweat for the dogs to detect the scent of COVID.

The Queen’s Health System Chief Physician Executive Dr. Whitney Limm said the virus is not transmitted through sweat, ideally, they want people who recently tested positive for the virus to contact them.

Limm said, “What we’ll do is we’ll send a bag with a t-shirt, mask, socks, and a wristband. And we’ll have them wear, wear them for about 12 hours, and then send the samples back to us.”  

A dog’s sense of smell is 100,000 times stronger than humans, and if they can smell certain types of cancers, researchers believe they can also smell the virus.

The study may take two to three months to be completed. The training requires dogs that do not get tired of searching or repeating the trials hundreds of times.

One of the dogs participating is a one-and-a-half-year-old Labrador Retriever named Tess, she was an assistance dog in pediatrics at Queen’s.

“The oldest one is Sadie, who’s a yellow Labrador, and she’s five years old,” Maurer said. “She was in the program and had what we call a career change. She didn’t quite meet the criteria to become a service dog, but she’s really well suited for this type of work.”  

If the study is successful, COVID-sniffing dogs could be part of airport screening or at the entrance of the neighborhood shopping mall.

Limm said, “Would love to identify people who are pre-symptomatic, or asymptomatic, and then to say, hey, let’s see what we can do to separate them from the public and prevent the spread.”  

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