Sniffer dogs set to become faster virus hunters

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Coronavirus sniffer dog Kassi is trained to detect Covid-19 in arriving passengers at Helsinki Airport in Finland. Picture: Antti Aimo-Koivisto/Lehtikuva/AFP/Finland OUT media_cameraCoronavirus sniffer dog Kassi is trained to detect Covid-19 in arriving passengers at Helsinki Airport in Finland. Picture: Antti Aimo-Koivisto/Lehtikuva/AFP/Finland OUT


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The first trials of sniffer dogs being used to detect Covid-19 have proved a success.

The global trials, that included the University of Adelaide and Australian Border Force’s National Detector Dog Program Facility in Victoria, have found dogs were able to detect Covid-19 in patients even when they were asymptomatic* or within the incubation* period.

The trials showed the reliability of a dog’s nose matched current technology in identifying infected people.

The success of the trials means sniffer dogs could be used at airports as a quicker, non-invasive* way to detect Covid-19 carriers travelling between borders. They could also be used to screen staff in hospitals or travellers in hotel quarantine.

media_cameraAdelaide University project lead investigator Dr Anne-Lise Chaber with Australian Border Force detector dog handler Lisa Saunders, with dogs Quake (black) and Xena. Picture: Simon Cross

The preliminary* control trials involved imprinting* detector dogs using positive sweat samples collected from patients in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Another trial was conducted at Sydney International Airport terminal over three weeks in March.

“The controlled trials were completed on 28 February, 2021, with results proving that dogs can accurately discriminate* between sweat samples taken from persons who have tested positive and negative to Covid-19,” a Boarder Force spokesman said.

The spokesman said the detector dogs could potentially provide efficient and reliable sniffs to “complement” other screening methods.

He said data from the March trial was still being analysed, with the research done with the Alfort National Veterinary School in France and the UAE Ministry of the Interior.

The veterinary school said canine sniffing achieved a 97 per cent success rate.

It found using sniffer dogs took just a fraction of a second per sample and therefore provided for more rapid and non-invasive screening.

media_cameraSniffer dog Sammy takes part in training to detect Covid-19 at K9 in Belgium. Picture: James Arthur Gekiere/Belga/AFP/Belgium OUT

The French veterinary school said the trails were an international first and paved the way for greater use of sniffer dogs in the fight against Covid-19.

“Some countries have already deployed* dogs, in particular the United Arab Emirates with whom we have been working since March 2020, at airports, borders and via mobile canine screening units,” the school said.

On average it takes up to eight weeks to train a dog and pass validation* tests.

A similar study in the UK also reported the distinct smell of Covid-19 had been detected by specifically trained dogs with 94 per cent accuracy.

COVID Sniffer Dogs media_cameraUniversity of Adelaide researcher Dr Susan Hazel with her dog, Fergus. Labradors are one of the breeds that will be trained to sniff out Covid-19 in people. Picture: Tom Huntley.

The dogs were also able to identify infections caused by the coronavirus strain that was dominant* in the UK last summer as well as a later strain of the virus.

“They could detect the new variant* without any additional training, so this gives us real hope and really suggests that dogs are able to detect different variants of Covid,” said Professor James Logan, head of the department of disease control at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

UK Medical Detection Dogs chief scientific officer Dr Claire Guest said: “These fantastic results are further evidence that dogs are one of the most reliable biosensors* for detecting the odour of human disease.

“Our robust* study shows the huge potential for dogs to help in the fight against Covid-19.”


asymptomatic: producing or showing no symptoms incubation: the time from when the virus enters the body until signs or symptoms first appear non-invasive: not requiring a medical instrument to be inserted into patients preliminary: early, beginning imprinting: rapid learning to establish long-lasting behaviour discriminate: recognise a distinction or difference deployed: sent or moved into position, activated validation: checking or proving the accuracy of something dominant: the main, most powerful variant: a different form of the virus biosensors: something that detects and measures chemical reactions and changes in living things robust: strong


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    The reliability of a dog’s nose in detecting Covid-19 was as accurate as what? What kind of samples were used to imprint the detector dogs? Which Australian facilities joined the global trial? Where have sniffer dogs already been deployed overseas in the fight against the virus? How long does it take on average to train a dog and pass validation tests?


1. Create an ad for dogs
Design an advertisement for the imaginary website Dog’s News. Your audience is dogs across Australia. The purpose of your ad is to encourage suitable dogs to train and work as Covid-19 sniffer dogs.

Time: allow 25 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Science, Visual Communication Design

2. Extension
Why do you think dogs have developed such an amazing ability? List the benefits of having such an incredible sense of smell for dogs. Write as many as you can think of.

Time: allow 10 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Science

I Spy Nouns
Nouns are places, names (of people and objects), and time (months or days of the week).

How many nouns can you find in the article? Can you sort them into places, names and time?

Pick three nouns and add an adjective (describing word) to the nouns.


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