Dogs’ contribution to society has been traced all the way back to the Vikings, where they would help with hunting, herding, tracking, protection and, of course, companionship — so it’s fair to say they’re some of the hardest workers in the animal world.
Since then, these good boys (and girls!) have helped humanity by sniffing out everything from explosives to drugs to people while on search and rescue missions. Now these happy heroes are playing another important role in society by sniffing out COVID-19.
Can your pup sniff out coronavirus?
According to Dr Dominique Grandjean (DVM, PhD, HDR), Professor at the National Veterinary School of Alfort, any breed can do it! He envisions a future where dogs can be trained to do morning walks around retirement homes, and pet owners can have their dogs trained to detect the virus. “If we had 10, 000 dogs trained to sniff for covid,” he says, “Every dog should be able to sniff out 200 – 300 samples a day, so that means 2 – 3 million samples per day.”
While the idea of being sniffed by a wet little snoot every morning is certainly adorable, Dr Granjean and his colleagues’ exciting trial results have yet to be peer reviewed, meaning mass roll-out of this plan likely won’t be happening anytime soon.
The world’s cutest airport officials
Although Dr Granjean’s vision will take time, professional hounds are already getting to work around the world: In Helsinki, Finland, the first four troops (Valo, ET, K’ssi and Miina) were deployed at the international airport in October after preliminary tests showed they could detect the deadly virus with close to 100% certainty.
Unfortunately for travelers, they don’t come into direct contact with the pups. Sweat is voluntarily collected on wipes from travelers who want to be tested, and this is provided to the pups, who can detect the coronavirus within 10 seconds.
The method is cheaper, faster and cuter than any of the other screening tests currently implemented at airports around the world, including temperature checks, saliva screenings, and nasal swabs. Reports show that they can even detect the virus before any symptoms appear.
Due to the success of Finland’s program, other countries are jumping on board. Dubai already has their own sniffer dogs in action. German Professor Holger Volk, who has been leading research at Hanover University, says their team has been bombarded with inquiries from international health authorities and companies after publishing their findings.
How dogs are trained to detect viruses
Dogs have already shown their exceptional sense of smell – for example, when you try quietly open a bag of biltong. But professional pups go through much more rigorous training to prove their skills.
In the case of the coronavirus, the dogs aren’t actually trained to detect the virus itself. Instead, they sense how the virus is changing the human cell, and react to the smell that these cells begin to emit.
At Hanover University, samples are collected and placed into a machine with several holes with each one emitting a unique smell. Fourteen Beagles are being trained with this conditioning machine and, when they find the positive samples, they’re given a treat.
As with dogs who detect explosives or drugs, this process is like playing hide-and-seek to them. Imagine going to work every day but it feels like a game — and there are always treats every time you do your job correctly!
Scent games you can play with your pup
While training dogs to detect viruses is more than the average human handle at home, there are several nose work games you can play with your dog to hone their abilities, bond with them, and have a good time:
1. Find the food
This is great for puppies and beginners! Simply hide treats strategically throughout your house and/or garden and let your pup to the rest. To start, place treats in plain sight – once they realise that there are more in store, sit back and watch as they start sniffing them out. As your dog gets better at this game, you can start hiding treats in more difficult places.
2. Muffin tin puzzle
Place a few treats in a muffin tin, making sure to leave some empty. Place tennis balls over each muffin tin hole and give it to your dog. They’ll explore by moving the tennis balls to get to the treat hidden underneath. Because the treats are all in close proximity to one another, they’re likely to get the scents confused and move a few accidental balls – but as they improve they’ll be able to sniff out exactly where the treats are.
3. American Kennel Club Scent Work
This is a perfect game for the pet-parent who wants to play, too. Cotton swabs are saturated with essential oils, including birch, anise, clove and cypress. The swabs are hidden out of sight, and the dog has to find them. In the official event, dogs have to communicate their findings to their handler, who then has to call it out to the judge. This is a great game for the whole family, where one person hides the swabs, one is on a team with the pup, and another is the judge.
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