As we scramble for more — well, any — ways to battle against the coronavirus, scientists have finally decided to release the hounds, quite literally. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine have begun training a dedicated group of extremely good puppers to pinpoint the unique scent of the virus. Having coronavirus detection dogs by our side, they say, would be especially helpful in identifying asymptomatic persons, playing a valuable role in disease prevention as people return to work and quarantine orders are relaxed.
In a statement sent out by the researchers, they explain, “With up to 300 million smell receptors — compared to six million in humans — dogs are uniquely positioned to aid in disease detection. This pioneering study — that will explore the sensitivity and specificity of scent — sets the stage for dogs to be a force multiplier in the mission to detect COVID-19, particularly among asymptomatic patients, or hospital or business environments where testing is most challenging.”
Note that most evidence suggests dogs are unaffected by the coronavirus, which means, once again, our canine companions are simply joining the fight to help humans, and humans alone. They truly are the goodest of bois.
Canine noses have long been the subject of praise and admiration, with dog researchers claiming they can detect a mere teaspoon of sugar sprinkled into a million gallons of water, or a single rotten apple buried among two million barrels. As James Walker, former director of the Sensory Research Institute at Florida State University, explained to PBS, “If you make the analogy to vision, what you and I can see at a third of a mile, a dog could see more than 3,000 miles away and still see as well.” It should be no surprise, then, that studies upon studies have proven that dogs, some untrained and unprovoked, can fairly accurately recognize the scent of cancer and other diseases in our breath, excrement, blood and sometimes even directly through our skin.
As for how dogs are trained to put their noses to use as acute disease detectors, Guy Aumend, president of the World Detector Dog Organization, says the process is surprisingly simple: The dogs are exposed to whatever scent you want them to distinguish, then given rewards — like treats or toys — so they positively associate with said scent. After enough positive reinforcement, the dogs will naturally gravitate toward the smell.
Then, for the sake of science, as the University of Pennsylvania statement explains, “Once the dogs learn the odor, the investigators will document that the dogs can discriminate between COVID-19 positive and COVID-19 negative samples in a laboratory setting, establishing the platform for testing to determine if the dogs can identify COVID-19 infected people.”
But despite an abundance of evidence supporting the amazing sense of smell that dogs have, there are some serious logistical problems associated with actually using them as disease detectors, which is why you rarely see them running alongside doctors in hospitals and other medical environments. “I’ve done research on it, and it’s not terribly promising,” says detector dog researcher Larry Myers. “It has some benefits, but it’s not anything like a panacea.”
One problem is that, in real hospital environments, dogs may be required to sniff through thousands and thousands of samples, a monotonous task accompanied by little positive reinforcement, which could result in an extremely bored dog that then functions at a lesser level. And while even the most advanced human-made tests can result in false positives or negatives, the notion of relying on a dog — which, yeah, is a dog and has moods, and good days and bad days, just like us — in a medical environment is still something that many people have trouble accepting, and Myers says rightfully so.
Furthermore, when we can hardly even keep up with our own medical supply chain and testing needs, realistically training enough disease detection dogs to make a real difference is still far, far beyond what our available resources and expertise allow for. “Where are you going to get the training aids to train dogs on the scent of asymptomatic people?” Myers questions. “I don’t think they’ll ever get them trained, because they’re not going to be able to get their training aids.” He does add, however, “If they could do that, honestly, yeah, it could serve as a rapid screening test — if it was shown to be reliable.”
Nonetheless, I wish these courageous pups a nice few months of training and hope that someday we really can put their expert noses to good use as extremely cute, insanely boopable disease detectors. But for now, as Myers says, “I kind of question why they bothered with the coronavirus.”