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Dogs sniff out COVID in students, staff at Seabury Hall

Seabury Hall Assitance Dogs 12-13-2021_013_high_res_berkowitz.jpeg
Bryan Berkowitz

Can dogs sniff out cases of COVID-19?

That’s a question a local pilot project is trying to answer.

Assistance Dogs of Hawaiʻi is partnering on the project with Seabury Hall. Both are based in Makawao, Maui.

ADH recently completed a major research study with The Queen’s Medical Center, which found that dogs could detect COVID-19 through sweat samples.

The research team found the dogs were able to differentiate between SARS-CoV-2 and common cold or flu viruses.

The study has been submitted for publication in a peer-reviewed medical journal.

“Dogs have so much untapped potential, especially in the field of medical bio-detection," Maureen Maurer, executive director of ADH, said. "Our goal all along has been to have a practical application of this where dogs could provide an additional screening at places like schools, hospitals, and airports, medical bio-detection is an untapped resource. And there's just so much potential in this field."

"The work that we've been doing with the Queen's Medical Center really will help show what's possible, and what dogs are capable of, and how they can provide an additional screening tool that's noninvasive, it's accurate and efficient,” Maurer said. 

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Bryan Berkowitz
At Seabury Hall, students and staff will swab their necks to collect a skin odor sample. The samples will be placed in a box, and the dogs will sniff each box. If COVID is detected in sweat, it will paw at the box.

At the Maui school, cotton pads are wiped on participants’ necks to collect skin odor samples. The samples are put in a lineup of boxes. If a dog identifies the scent of COVID-19, it will paw at the box.

The dogs can sniff 10 boxes in about 20 seconds.

Participation in the pilot project is voluntary and poses no risk to participants or the dogs – since the virus is not transmissible through sweat.

Four Labrador Retrievers between the ages of 1 to 6 years old are participating in the project: Sadie, Tess, Georgia and Grace.

"We are so excited to be invited to be part of this study," Maureen Madden, Seabury Hall's head of school, said. "It's cutting edge, it's new, and it is going to really serve the future. It's going to serve our children and their children."

Madden also said frequent nasal swab tests can be stressful for students.

"There's anxiety and I think that this opportunity eliminates that anxiety because it is non-invasive," she said.

“We are planning to share the protocol we created with other agencies that can scale this program worldwide," Maurer said. "The dogs are able to generalize and alert to different variants without additional training, so they can be deployed quickly if the need arises in the future.”

She said this screening method may be especially useful in low-income countries and regions where access to vaccinations and testing is not readily available. This may be a feasible and rapid method of screening large numbers of people.

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