Isabel George meets the dogs at the forefront of the battle against coronavirus.
Image: Bex Arts and Nigel Harper Photography
Asher, Jasper, Norman, Star, Digby, and Storm… meet the super six bio-detection dogs who could save thousands of human lives in the fight against the spread of COVID-19.
Currently in training at the Medical Detection Dogs charity (MDD) headquarters in Milton Keynes, the dogs are set to form an effective testing tool by screening people for the virus in a way that is rapid, accurate, non-invasive, and best achieved only by a dog — they will sniff it out!
The efficiency of the dogs means that, once the trial is over, a potential 250 people an hour could be screened for the virus, just by sniffing the air around each individual. The dogs can also detect subtle changes in the temperature of the skin so potentially screen for fever.
Dr Claire Guest, CEO and co-founder of MDD, explained: “At the moment we are looking into how we can safely catch the odour of the virus from patients and present it to the dogs. The aim is that the dogs will be able to screen anyone, including those who are asymptomatic (carrying but not showing symptoms of COVID-19), and tell us whether they need to be tested. This way the NHS testing resources are only used when needed.”
The arrival and spread of the killer coronavirus managed to bring the world to its knees — and it has not gone away. At the time of writing this article, the easing of the lockdown in the UK was well underway, but at the same time scientists were insisting that testing for the virus is imperative if a re-emergence of the disease is to be prevented.
For over 10 years, the Medical Detection Dogs charity has been championing the science behind a dog’s sense of smell. Work achieved by MDD has shown that dogs can be trained to detect the odour of a disease at the equivalent dilution of one teaspoon of sugar in two Olympic-sized swimming pools full of water!
The bio-detection dogs have already proven this kind of accuracy and saved lives by detecting the unique odours of conditions such as cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and bacterial infections. Working in partnership with Professor James Logan, head of department at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), and Professor Steve Lindsay, from the department of bio-sciences at Durham University, a team of MDD dogs were trained to detect odours from humans with malaria infections with extremely high accuracy — above the diagnostic standards set by the World Health Organisation.
At the start of the coronavirus pandemic the same partnership concentrated their efforts on COVID-19, safe in the knowledge that if COVID-19 has an odour, then the ‘super six’ bio-detection dogs will be able to detect it.
So, who are these six pioneering pups?
The three spaniels, a Labrador, a Labrador X Golden Retriever, and a Labradoodle were chosen for their high-drive and resilience, qualities that all the MDD bio-detection dogs need to do the job. And behind that specification are six super characters.
Asher, at five years old, is something of a father figure to the youngsters on the team. He’s a ‘wiggly’, working Cocker Spaniel whose high drive and eccentricity had him bouncing in and out of rescue homes throughout his early years, until he found a home and a focus with Medical Detection Dogs’ CEO Claire.
Asher loves the sofa in Claire’s home and walks with her other dogs, Florin and Tala, but this ‘old soul’ shows the fullness of his intense nature when he is engrossed in his MDD work. When he was on the Parkinson’s project Asher ‘told’ everyone — in a look — that he had detected the odour of the disease, and made it look easy!
Image: Tim Sky
Jasper, the second working Cocker Spaniel on the team, is a keen, fast, methodical ‘busy blur’! He is a year old and started his basic bio-detection assessment training at seven months, when he came to MDD after time in the care of the charity Wood Green.
Norman is the third of the working Cocker Spaniel trio. He also came from a rescue centre and has paid that kindness back in love, affection, and efficiency ever since. Norman is two years old and has a well developed on/off switch between work and relaxing!
Image: Neil Pollock
Star is a Labrador with all the enthusiasm of a bouncy two-year-old. She is always happy and eager to please, and a brilliant team player who loves other dogs and having fun with everyone when the working day is over.
Digby is the Labradoodle in the pack and a gentle giant of a dog. He is two years old and confident in his ways, with a lovely laid-back personality. Digby is described as the ‘thinker’ in the team, which is where the poodle side comes through.
Image: Neil Pollock
Despite his name, Storm is a three-year-old Labrador X Golden Retriever who has two passions in life — cuddles and toys! Very big, brave, and with an incredibly soft nature, Storm is instantly everyone’s best friend and at work he loves to use his big button nose to thoroughly focus on the job of detection.
All the dogs are, in one way or another, being given a second chance in life with MDD. Rehoming centres, including Wood Green and Battersea, are on a constant lookout for dogs with the necessary high drive and temperament for work with the charity.
The dogs’ training takes several weeks, with the COVID-19 team undergoing the same training as the teams used to detect malaria, cancers, and bacterial infections.
Asher, who took part in the Parkinson’s training, was alongside the new recruits as they underwent their initial assessment, learning how to ‘sniff ’ test samples in the MDD training room and then indicate — usually by staring or sitting — when they detected the given odour.
While the dogs were going through the first phase of their reward-based detection training, the team at the LSHTM co-ordinated the collection of samples from NHS London Hospitals.
These were collected on face masks and nylon socks (which provide a good matrix for collection) containing the breath and body odours of COVID-infected and non-infected patients.
Once scientifically prepared, the next stage involves the six bio-detection dogs undergoing thorough training to identify the virus from pieces of the material samples.
Professor James Logan from the LSHTM said: “We know that other respiratory diseases like COVID-19 change our body odour so there is a very high chance that dogs will be able to detect it. This new diagnostic tool could revolutionise our response to COVID-19 in the short-term, but particularly in the months to come and could be profoundly impactful and help our lives get back to some sort of normality.”
Safety for the dogs is a priority for everyone involved in the project. For the dogs, the training room is a place where they play a search and find game with rewards, which they love. For the human team it’s about the dogs’ welfare during training and so regular contact with the scientists in the partnership ensures everyone is working with the latest understanding of the virus and there is no danger to the dogs.
When they are fully trained and deployed to screen people in public places such as airports in the UK, the dogs will be safeguarded as their work will not involve physical contact with the people being screened. And in training the super six are only exposed to non-infectious ‘dead’ samples of the virus.
As the charity has a no kennelling policy, at the end of their 9am – 4pm day (with lots of play and breaks in between), the dogs get to go home to their foster families and all the comforts of home. At every stage of the process, the priority is the health and happiness of the dogs.
COVID-19 testing is the key to controlling the virus and in May 2020 the combined research team secured £500,000 of government funding to train the super six and develop how these dogs, and the others who follow, can positively supplement ongoing testing by screening for the virus.
Professor Steve Lindsay at Durham “This new diagnostic tool could revolutionise our response...” University said: “If the research is successful, we could use COVID-19 detection dogs at airports at the end of the epidemic to rapidly identify people entering the UK who are carrying the virus. This would be a massive game changer and an important move in preventing a second wave of the epidemic.”
While Asher, Jasper, Norman, Star, Digby, and Storm train to make history, the human partnership of MDD, LSHTM and Durham University work together to produce scientific evidence that the detection dogs can be an effective part of the Government’s approach to explore all positive options to tackle coronavirus.
Claire Guest is well aware of the charity’s detection dogs’ ability to save lives. Her own life was saved by her Labrador, Daisy, who sniff ed her early stage breast cancer. Claire is proud of how the super six dogs working on the COVID-19 detection project are bringing together the two aspects — bio-detection and medical alert assistance — of the charity she co-founded in 2008. “We have already demonstrated our expertise in canine disease detection by successfully training dogs to detect diseases like cancer, Parkinson’s, and malaria, and we apply that same science to train life-saving Medical Alert Assistance Dogs to detect odour changes in individuals, caused by their health conditions,” she explained.
“We are sure our dogs will be able to find the odour of COVID-19 and we will then move into a second phase to test them in live situations, following which we hope to work with other agencies to train more dogs for deployment. We are incredibly proud that a dog’s nose could once again save many lives.”
For more information visit www.medicaldetectiondogs.org.uk/covid-19-detection-dogs and follow them on Twitter @MedDetectDogs and Facebook @Medical Detection Dogs