Dogs Assist in Fight Against COVID-19
Bainbridge Nonprofit Launches Canine Covid-19 Detection Study
Assistance Dogs Northwest (ADNW), a Bainbridge Island nonprofit, is participating in a research study to teach dogs to detect people with the coronavirus and help prevent the spread of infection.
Once trained, medical detection dogs can be deployed in ports of entry and public gatherings, to provide rapid non-invasive screening for COVID-19. This work may prove integral in the fight against Covid-19 and be a method of screening large numbers of individuals very quickly.
Five Bainbridge Island dogs are being evaluated for participation in the study. These are ADNW dogs-in-training who will eventually become Assistance Dogs for children and adults with physical disabilities. Additional dogs will join the study from Assistance Dogs of Hawaii, ADNW’s affiliate organization in Maui, Hawaii, where the training will be conducted starting next month.
“The ultimate goal, for me, is the practical application of this research to help screen people, even those who may be asymptomatic, at places like airports, schools, hospitals and other gathering places to prevent the spread of disease,” said ADNW Executive Director Maureen Maurer. “It’s encouraging to have man’s best friend join in the fight against man’s worst enemy.”
It’s not the first time ADNW has participated in a study on the extraordinary olfactory capacity of dogs to detect disease. Maurer was the principal investigator in a groundbreaking research study in 2016 that proved that dogs could be trained to detect life-threatening bacterial infections in humans with an accuracy rate close to 99 percent.
“As soon as the pandemic hit, it occurred to me that dogs could be taught to detect COVID-19, based on our previous research and other study outcomes,” Maurer said. “I believe they will be able to help us fight this disease and am excited for the opportunity to contribute to the growing body of knowledge in this field.”
Five ADNW dogs in training – all Labradors or Golden Retrievers – are being evaluated at the Bainbridge Island campus for their aptitude in medical scent detection. These dogs include Sadie, Ginny, Samson, Yuki and Nash. Those who make the cut will travel with Maurer to Hawaii next month and begin phase 1 of the study, that involves teaching the dogs to discern the presence of Covid-19 in the sweat of infected people. Coronavirus samples will be collected in sweat from t-shirts and socks and is not transmissible to dogs or people.
Maurer, who has a Master’s of Science in Canine Studies, said that the research will be conducted in partnership with Medical Detection Dogs UK, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and The Queens Medical Center in Hawaii, where residents will be recruited to participate in the study.
When it comes to smell, dogs’ olfactory acuity is over 100,000 times stronger than humans, and they are able to detect odors in parts per trillion, according to researchers. The key to harnessing their ability is accomplished by teaching dogs to accurately discern one scent over another, and let humans know when they find it. ADNW begins training by teaching the dogs to detect a target scent by having them “go find” an item – a tea bag, for example — hidden in boxes and rewarding them with food for accomplishing the task.
“We are looking for dogs who are not just scent-oriented, but have a high degree of drive and determination. We want dogs who are eager to search for items and enjoy this type of work,” says Maurer.
Dogs who are not chosen for the COVID detection project will continue their training and development as assistance dogs. They will eventually be matched with a person with a disability, whose needs align with their skills and temperament. Others will become Facility Dogs and work full-time at children’s hospitals or child advocacy centers, helping children who are victims of crime. Assistance Dogs and life-time follow-up support are provided free of charge.
Assistance Dogs Northwest is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization (EIN: 99-0353694) that provides children and adults with disabilities and other special needs professionally trained dogs that will increase their independence and enhance the quality of their lives. The agency is committed to serving people through Community Outreach Programs and developing the potential dogs have to assist people in need through our Research Programs. ADNW is supported by donations from individuals, foundations and businesses. To give, visit assistancedogsnorthwest.org.