Sniffing Out COVID - Our Dogs Amazing Noses
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Medical Detection Dogs have been in training. These highly skilled and expertly trained dogs have proved to be brilliant at sniffing out COVID. Could their skills make the mandatory quarantine after international travel unnecessary for all except those who are actually carrying the virus?
No one knows better than Medical Detection Dogs just how extraordinary our dog's noses are. This organisation along with a group of scientists has led the world in training dogs to test for early detection of COVID-19.
We all know that dogs have a better sense of smell than us - make that 10,000 times better! Medical Detection Dogs can alert us to the virus through their sense of smell faster than any other test. Will these sniffer dogs speed up our testing, tracing and quarantining strategy?
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Currently, our medical tests are slow and not 100 % accurate, and we’ve witnessed many false positives and negatives being diagnosed. Often a negative result only means that you’ve been tested too early or too late.
This is not the case when it comes to Medical Detection Dogs. Nominated for a Naturo Superdog Award these amazing sniffer dogs are able to detect COVID-19 with better accuracy than our machines. Their noses are so sensitive they are able to smell even the tiniest traces of the virus in our systems, picking up asymptomatic cases even when no symptoms of the virus are showing.
Medical Detection Dogs started in a dining room
Science confirms that we give off volatile organic compounds as we metabolise illness, through our breath, sweat and urine. Germs make our bodies give off unique signature scents. Enter the powerful nose of our best friends.
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MDD began in a dining room two decades ago, with test samples kept in the kitchen freezer. The dogs were trained to be able to discriminate between specific scents rapidly and signal new smells by sitting down, which earned them a treat. They were able to identify cancer in its earliest stages. The dogs love the work and they love their owners, as was proved in the summer of 2009.
Daisy the superstar sniffer
It was a hot day and Claire Guest, Co-Founder of the Milton Keynes-based charity Medical Detection Dogs, decided to take her three dogs to the park for some fun. Two of her dogs leapt out of the car and went straight to enjoying their outing, while the third, Daisy, a bladder cancer detection dog, did not move.
Claire's early diagnosis of cancer
Claire tried to gently push her away to enjoy her playtime, but Daisy was persistent and began nudging her hard in the chest. This naturally troubled Claire and led to her feeling a lump in her chest, she rushed to have it checked out the following day. After a core biopsy, a deep-seated breast cancer tumour was found. Without Daisy, it’s unlikely Claire would have found the tumour in time to treat it.
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Medical Detection Dogs specialise in two types of working dogs; Bio Detection dogs and Medical Alert Assistance Dogs.
Bio Detection Dogs
After their early success at smelling stage 1 cancer, another breakthrough was in the early detection of malaria. This early diagnosis makes it possible to save lives. These dogs are detecting diseases earlier than is currently possible with any medical equipment.
Medical Alert Assistance Dogs
Using their amazing sense of smell, dogs can be trained to identify minor odour changes that happen just before an emergency and alert the person to take preventative action.
Sniffing out COVID-19
How are the dogs trained?
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Medical Detection Dogs got together with the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine again. After their recent success with Malaria, they wanted to see if the dogs could detect COVID-19. They first tested to see if the virus caused our bodies to emit odours.
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They asked 3500 volunteers whose COVID-19 status was known to send in their socks, shirts and face-masks. These sweat samples were put into sterile containers which the dogs sniffed. It was soon evident that the virus did indeed make our bodies give off a distinct smell. The first COVID-19 detection dogs were two labradors, Basil and Bob. The dogs are trained to sit or paw the floor when they got a positive hit of the virus.
Why are the dogs so successful at diagnosis?
The people at Medical Detection Dogs say that our dog’s noses are the best bio-sensors we know of. They’re capable of detecting tiny traces, around one part per trillion – the equivalent of one teaspoon of sugar in two Olympic sized swimming pools. It’s as if dogs use their noses to see in technicolour.
Are the sniffer dogs better than our testing machines?
All that sniffing power enables dogs to be able to pick up positive results when the PCR and lateral flow tests don’t. When the viral load is very low or when a person has no outward signs of infection, the tests often fail. The well trained sniffer dogs are still able to detect the virus, even if it's only the tiniest hint of COVID-19 present in our bodies.
How many people can the sniffer dogs test?
Detection dogs can screen about 750 people an hour with an accuracy rate over 94%. The dogs are being considered to be a reliable first line screening method that can be used to real-time diagnose large bodies of people at big events, or at airports - two major hotspots of the disease.
Where in the World are dogs being used to detect COVID-19?
Super-smeller-dogs have been put to the test in airports in the United Arab Emirates, Finland, and Lebanon and the results have confirmed that they can pick up signs of infection even before symptoms start.
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In Canada, Vancouver Coastal Health has just finished training three dogs to detect the virus. A worldwide search found them the best dogs for the job. Dogs with the right genes coupled with the ability to work. It took them 6 months to train the two labradors and one springer spaniel. For the dogs, training is treated like a game, each time a positive sample is detected a buzzer sounds and a treat is released. The dogs are super fast and have proved to be 100 % accurate in their trials. They are called Canines for Care and are all set to be employed at airports and on cruise ships.
In Germany the Detection Dog Training System is also using positive reinforcement to train COVID detection dogs. The team consists of 5 x Malinois, 3 x German Shepherds and one Dutch Shepherd, six of the team are females. The dogs have been getting great scores too in the 95% accuracy range, able to detect minuscule traces of the virus.
The German government is concerned about people being uncomfortable with a dog sniffing them. They plan on using a system where a person will swab the crook of their arm and hold the swab to a hole in a dividing wall, and on the other side a sniffer dog either remains standing or sits.
In Cambodia they have three sniffer dogs that have been in training for three months. Impressed by the 10 to 15 seconds it takes the dogs to confirm a positive case, there are plans to train more sniffer teams. The dogs will be used to screen for positive cases at stadiums, airports and border checkpoints.
Russia and Finland have also reported that they’re in training with their sniffer teams. COVID detection dogs are considered to be the perfect solution for low-income countries which have limited laboratory capabilities.
It's encouraging to consider that a COVID-free thumbs up from a furry friend (as they pass us by in a lineup) may be in our very near future. Medical Detection Dogs have one more process of a peer review to complete, which is the final step in the academic scientific study proving that dogs are successfully sniffing out COVID-19.
How will MDD change our lives?
Soon we will be seeing dogs sniffing out COVID-19 at our airports and stadiums. This means that in the case of international travel we're looking at an end to enforced hotel stays for travellers who do not carry the virus.
There is no doubt that Medical Detection Dogs play a vital role in the wellbeing of millions of people around the world, and the skills involved in training these amazing animals are growing and improving by the day.
Feeling grateful to Medical Detection Dogs? Organisations such as MDD rely on donations made by the public. If you are in a position to donate to their life-changing work, please visit their website and show them your gratitude by making a donation.