Dogs trained to sniff out COVID-19: vet spot on Ireland AM

Watch this video from Ireland AM. Everyone knows that dogs have an astonishingly powerful sense of smell, and the latest news suggests that this skill may be utilised to sniff out humans who are assymptomatic carriers of the Coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Reports from the UK indicate that the UK government is actively investing in developing this into an active tool to help to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak.

How are dogs able to detect conditions like cancer and diabetes?

Dogs have an immensely sensitive sense of smell, and are able to pick up traces of chemicals that are produced by certain specific diseases. The charity trains two types of dogs

a) Biodetection dogs (eg cancers and Parkinsons Disease).

They are given a series of samples on a carousel to sniff, and they quickly learn that if they sit down in front of a positive sample, they get given a reward. This is demonstrated clearly on the video.

b) Medical alert assistance dogs

The dogs are trained to identify minute odour changes emitted prior to an emergency and alert the person to take preventative action. To date, conditions include:

  • Type 1 diabetes
  • Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (PoTS)
  • Addisons Disease
  • Severe allergies
  • Other endocrine disorders
  • Episodes of sudden health deterioration

By assisting individuals with their condition, these dogs help reduce 999 calls and hospital admissions, giving people and their families/carers greater confidence and independence, enabling them to lead a full and happy life. You can see examples here .

The dogs are with their owners 24/7 and alert to a change in their condition during both the day and night. Typically they give them around a 5 minute warning when they are about to suffer a health crisis so they can take the necessary action, such as medication or getting somewhere safe. Dogs are trained to alert by either jumping up and/or licking strongly. The type of alert will vary depending on the needs of the client.

Where are dogs trained to do this?

Medical detection dogs is the name of the organisation who trains dogs for these purposes: they are based near Milton Keynes in the UK.

How long does training last for these dogs?

The length of time to train a bio-detection dog varies depending on a number of things, such as the odour they are being trained to detect, the sample type they are using, and the dog itself (all dogs learn at different speeds, the same as humans). It generally takes 6-8 months for a dog to reach a good level of performance.

A Medical Alert Assistance Dog is usually ready for advanced training and placement with their new owner at around 18 months old, but this depends on the dog and breed as they have to be mature enough to begin the process.

What happens after medical alert assistance dogs are trained: who are they given to?

Anyone can apply for a Medical Alert Assistance Dog and once the completed application is received, the waiting list is around 18 months, depending on individual requirements and the severity of the medical condition. So far, the organisation has covered the whole of England, Wales and Scotland, but they have applications for dogs from all areas.

What kind of breeds of dog are used most commonly?

All dogs and breeds have the capability to detect cancer, other diseases and crisis situations in humans. However the preferred dogs for medical detection work are a mixture of breeds including Labradors and working spaniels. They are chosen according to their ability. It is important that they have good noses, and that they also love searching and hunting for toys. Breeds that are working as Medical Detection Dogs at the moment include Labradoodles, Poodles, Viszlas and Yorkie Poos.

When did dogs start being trained to detect Covid 19 and is it a similar process to other diseases?

Dogs searching for COVID-19 will be trained in the same way as those dogs the charity has already trained to detect diseases like cancer, Parkinson’s and bacterial infections – by sniffing samples in the charity’s training room and indicating when they have found it. Following this training, the process will then transfer to detecting the COVID-19 odour on individuals, and the detector dogs will work in a similar way to our Medical Alert Assistance Dogs.

To find out more, watch the video here.

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