A new weapon against COVID-19 barks and works for kibble

Credit: Adrianne Murchison

Credit: Adrianne Murchison

A business that trains service dogs to help people with medical needs is now teaching them to detect the coronavirus inside senior living communities.

Canine Assistants in Milton taught Marshall, a two-year-old Golden Retriever mix, to spot the disease by sniffing body scent. The facility is training four more dogs that will soon join him in coronavirus detection work.

ExploreGerman study finds trained dogs able to detect COVID-19 with high accuracy

The dogs don’t actually smell the virus itself, but the scent generated by humans as their bodies try to fight it off. The dogs demonstrate their ability to recognize it when presented with a swab taken from a person with the virus.

Jennifer Arnold, founder of Canine Assistants, said. “We’re asking them if they can tell the difference between the sweat from a human body when infected with (coronavirus) or not.”

Wearing white gloves, Arnold stands in front of Marshall, holding out a swab for him to sniff. She then tucks it securely into her pocket and asks him “Is that COVID?” Then she extends her hands and he reaches out to her left hand for “yes” or her right hand for “no.” Marshall’s detective work earns him a treat.

Marshall and the other service dogs still in training have a nearly 92% accuracy rate, according to Canine Assistants.

Once they’re ready to work in the real world, the dogs can quickly scan and identify people who might be carrying the virus. At a recent NBA game for the Miami Heat, trained coronavirus dogs were walked past crowds waiting to enter AmericanAirlines Arena.

Through the program that began last year, all five of the dogs in training at Canine Assistants will eventually be placed in five senior care communities to augment their efforts to test for and control the spread of the coronavirus.

Training dogs to detect diseases has been done for years, so since the start of the pandemic scientists around the world have explored the possibility of using dogs to detect COVID-19. Last year, researchers in Germany found dogs were more accurate at detecting individuals who were not infected.

Separately, James Logan, a scientist with the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said there is an unknown factor in whether COVID-19 has a specific odor, but because other respiratory diseases change body odor, researchers believe it’s possible.

 STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Canine Assistants is trying to prepare its dogs to detect the differences between an active infection and antibodies to the virus. Because antibodies can be present in a person who has received the COVID-19 vaccine or recently recovered from the virus, detecting an active infection might be challenging, Arnold said.

Marshall was recently given to Benton House senior living community in Sugar Hill in Gwinnett County to add to their existing safety measures. More than 90% of residents there have received the vaccine since Jan. 26, CEO Mike Allard said.

Allard said Marshall will be useful in checking residents who might have early symptoms of COVID-19 but will be most helpful with staff members arriving for work, as well as visitors when they’re allowed to return to the community after the pandemic has eased. The CEO plans to bring Canine Assistants service dogs to four other Benton House locations in metro Atlanta.

“We got to meet Marshall before the holidays and the other four dogs to pilot the program “ Allard said. “This week is getting Marshall used to the environment and team members with an eye to start testing in two weeks.”

Arnold started Canine Assistants in 1991. The nonprofit breeds Golden and Labrador Retrievers, Goldendoodles, Poodles and other mixes and raises them to become service dogs for children and adults with disabilities. Some of the dogs learn to recognize scents that alert them that their owner is on the brink of an epileptic seizure or has experienced a drop in their blood sugar level. Others may assist people in wheelchairs or with limited mobility.

The dogs are donated to recipients at no cost. Currently, there’s a five-year waitlist for service dogs, staffers said.

Allard has been a Canine Assistants donor since 2016 and sponsored a dog about two years ago. The dog was paired with a Vietnam veteran experiencing seizures. Last year, Allard asked Arnold about teaching dogs to detect COVID-19, unaware that she was already in the early stages of working with dogs in that way, he said.

“The biggest thing here is he is fearless,” she said of Marshall. “He has never worried that I was not going to feed him or love him, that I was mad at him about something that was going to in some way affect his survival... The dogs we raise are half of a whole in that they need their person.”

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