Dogs are already used to detect certain cancers, hypoglycemia and impending seizures, and are now being trained abroad to smell Covid-19. But could this happen in New Zealand?
Yes, says Pauline Blomfield, Founder and CEO of K9 Medical Detection NZ which was established in Dunedin three years ago.
Over the past two years, the charitable foundation has trained dogs to detect various types of cancer, most recently Levi von Heisenberg, a German Shepherd who is able to detect bowel cancer in urine samples.
The protocols and methodologies put in place for cancer detection could be transferred to the detection of viruses, including Covid-19, Blomfield said.
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âWe’re working on the theory that if something smells we can train a dog to smell it. Obviously, we are talking about a very contagious virus, so there is [precautions] we would need to respect.
Blomfield has confirmed that K9 Medical Detection NZ is in talks with agencies and private companies about training Covid-19 detection dogs.
It comes as others working in K9 detection overseas have increasingly shared information on how best to train dogs for Covid-19 detection.
âWe’re just waiting for the funding,â Blomfield said.
She described a perfectly trained dog as a “four-legged diagnostic tool” capable of clearing long lines of people with speed and precision.
Such training would involve teaching the dog to detect Covid-19 in asymptomatic people, and will take “months and months”.
This is because there are two stages to training dogs: The clinical setting and then the operational setting.
These dogs would also need to have the proper certification before they can work with the public, Blomfield said.
Although training dogs is expensive, it turned out to be a relatively inexpensive tool if it could help prevent further blockages.
âYou have to have quality trainers and working dogs. It’s a problem in New Zealand because we’re very small, but it’s not insurmountable.
Dogs have a unique scent ability and are used to sniff explosives, find missing persons, or detect illegal goods and drugs smuggled across the border.
A German Shepherd like Levi has around 225 million scent receptors, compared to around 5 million for humans.
The human equivalent of smelling like Levi would be to smell a single teaspoon of sugar in two Olympic-size pools of water.
Blomfield said dogs trained at the Mosgiel charity would likely continue to be used specifically for cancer detection given the high rates of cancer deaths in New Zealand.
However, if New Zealand wanted to use dogs to help detect Covid-19, it could follow examples abroad where specialized working dogs, such as dogs used in explosives detection, are being recycled.
Blomfield said K9 Medical Detection NZ worked with German Shepherds and a Springer Spaniel who all came from a working genetic line.
âThey wake up in the morning and want to do something. They are excellent employees. You just have to make sure that they are well fed and sleeping well, and that they just want to work for you.
Showing a video of Levi successfully detecting samples in their lab and being rewarded with a treat, Blomfield added, âWe won’t be working for free, so why should they do it?
A pilot program involving dogs used to screen passengers for Covid-19 recently started at Miami International, one of the busiest airports in the United States.
Last month the Washington post reported that if the dog reported it detected the scent of the virus on a passenger, they would be asked to take a rapid coronavirus test.
“We are monitoring this very closely,” said Blomfield.
And it appears to be the New Zealand Customs Service.
A spokesperson confirmed that some specialists from the service, which runs detector dog teams at airports and ports across the country as well as the International Mail Center in Auckland, met with K9 Medical Detection NZ last year. .
“We are still in contact with them, and we continue to follow developments on this subject here and abroad,” she said.
Blomfield warned that if New Zealand wanted to replicate something similar, it would take time.
“I’m just waiting for that phone call, but you don’t want to rush this.”