As a dog owner, you don’t need me to tell you … your dog is your true best friend.
Your dog offers unconditional love and companionship. She makes you laugh every day, (That’s one of your dog’s most important jobs, right?)
Your dog improves your health … relieving stress, keeping you active, making you happier … the list is endless.
And that’s just your family dog, with no special training. Working dogs do some even more amazing things for us.
Dogs With Jobs
There are the brave working dogs who risk their lives to save ours … sniffing out bombs, or performing search and rescue operations.
Then there are the crime-fighters: police dogs, dogs who detect accelerants in arson cases … and dogs who find illegal substances in airplane luggage.
Service and therapy dogs can help the disabled, alert diabetics to high or low blood sugar, give seizure or allergy alerts, and provide emotional support for PTSD, depression or autism.
Some dogs perform incredible feats without being specially trained.
Dogs seem to be especially sensitive to illness in their human families. There are countless anecdotes about dogs who sniff out their owner’s cancer … or wake them up if they start to nod off while driving. One of my own dogs looked after me when I was recovering from major surgery a couple of years ago!
Tarka took on the task of making sure I was still breathing. He’d always lie where he could keep an eye on me. If I took a nap, I’d wake up to see him standing staring at me. Once he saw I was awake (or alive!), he’d wag his tail happily and run back to his lookout spot.
Now there’s news that dogs may be able to help with the COVID-19 pandemic. Some dogs are getting special training to sniff out the virus.
Dogs: Coronavirus Detectives
Dogs have 300 million smell receptors, giving them phenomenal sniffing abilities. That’s compared to our 6 million. No wonder dogs spend so much time investigating neighborhood smells on their walks. Or come running in from the backyard if you even think about making a sandwich.
Now, researchers think dogs can learn to discern the different odors of people who are COVID-19 positive or negative.
We’ve heard about two places dogs are training to be coronavirus detectives. The first is in the US.
University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine (Penn Vet)
Penn Vet has recently launched a pilot program for scent detection dogs.
Dogs have already been trained to sniff out other diseases … like cancer, Parkinson’s, or bacterial infections.
And now … Penn Vet expects that dogs will be able to sniff out the difference between COVID-19 positive and negative people.
They’re starting out with 8 dogs … who’ll spend 3 weeks learning “odor imprinting.”
First they’ll get to sniff COVID-19 positive urine and saliva samples in a lab. Once they learn the odor, the researchers will document the dogs’ ability to distinguish between COVID-19 positive and negative samples.
One big hope is the dogs will be able to sniff out COVID-19 positive people who don’t have symptoms.
Since most asymptomatic people aren’t getting tested (or quarantined) … dogs could make a big difference in halting the spread of the disease.
Dogs in the UK are also learning to find coronavirus cases.
London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM)
In 2018, LSHTM researchers found that dogs could be trained to sniff out malaria infections in people’s socks!
Out of 175 sock samples, 30 were positive for malaria infections, and 145 were uninfected. The dogs correctly identified 70% of the malaria-infected samples. They did even better in the uninfected samples, with 90% accuracy.
These results are better than the WHO diagnostic standards!
And now, LSHTM is starting work to train dogs to sniff out COVID-19 samples in a lab.
They know that other respiratory diseases change the body’s odor … so it’s possible COVID-19 does too. Dogs can also detect minor changes in skin temperature, so might be able to pick out somebody with a fever.
Another advantage dogs have over the current testing is speed. The LSHTM researchers think dogs could potentially assess up to 250 people in an hour!
Dogs could provide valuable screening support by working in ports of entry or public spaces.
Like Penn Vet, the LSHTM team are optimistic the dogs will be able to recognize positive COVID-19 in asymptomatic people. If they can, it will be an enormous help in preventing a resurgence of the disease after this pandemic ends.
This is exciting work. And the good news is … it’s research dogs can do without being harmed themselves.
And once again, we can thank dogs for their life-saving contributions to the world.
Dogs to the rescue, as always!