Asher was a problem dog. A hyperactive and unruly chocolate-brown cocker spaniel with a frizzy shag, he was shunted from owner to owner, maybe as many as seven by the age of three. Then, he was taken on by Milton Keynes, England-based Medical Detection Dogs, which was looking for working dogs to train, but even after being placed with a seasoned dog expert, Asher still would not sleep and kept trying to escape.
He was set to be returned to a rescue center until the charity’s cofounder Claire Guest gave him a final chance.
“We work a lot with spaniels and labradors that people have bought as pets, but they end up in rescue because they’re just bouncing off the walls,” Guest explains on a video call, before breaking into a broad grin.
Illustration: Mountain People
“That’s just the sort of dog we love. The reason they’re bouncing off the walls is they just want to do and everything they do, they get in trouble for. We give them something to do!” she says.
As we talk, Asher, who Guest thinks is probably five years old, sits obediently on the stone floor next to her. For an hour, he scarcely moves, but just glowers at a tennis ball a few centimeters from his nose. He is clearly a reformed character.
Guest went back to basics with Asher: She renamed him (he used to be called Jasper) and rebuilt his confidence. She noticed him licking and sniffing everything, and wondered if he could be trained as a bio-detection dog.
When Medical Detection Dogs was tasked with finding out whether malaria had a distinctive smell, Asher was assigned to the project. He was a natural.
Last month, he was given a new task: Could he smell COVID-19?
“It’s not unlike people who have incredible intelligence, but often struggle in other ways,” Guest says of Asher’s transformation.
The news that dogs could be deployed to detect COVID-19 might have an “and finally …” ring to it, but there is serious science behind the idea.
There has long been anecdotal evidence that many, perhaps all diseases have a telltale odor.
Yellow fever, for example, is said to smell like raw meat, and tuberculosis starts out as wafts of stale beer, but later becomes more like soggy cardboard with notes of brine.
These are just the ones that humans can notice — and compared to most animals, we have an abysmal sense of smell. Our olfactory epithelium, the area of the nasal cavity responsible for detecting odors, is 30 percent smaller than a canine’s.
This leads to a staggering disparity: The ability of a dog to place an odor is estimated to be somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000 times better than that of the average human.
“If a dog comes up to something they like the odor of, they sniff really hard and rapidly, don’t they,” Guest says.
HOW DOGS SNIFF
“You can hear that sniff-rate go up and they’re actually able to push air in and out of their nostrils at slightly different rates. This produces a little vortex that pulls up the volatiles that much more quickly. They’ve also got an ability to push old air out of the slits of their nose, the sides, and pull new air in at the same time. This information goes to two different parts of the brain and these two bits talk. Then they recognize the odor,” she says.
“We could detect a spoonful of sugar in a cup of tea, but a dog could detect a spoonful of sugar in two Olympic-sized swimming pools,” says James Logan, head of London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine’s department of disease control.
Logan, who is familiar to many in the UK from TV, including Channel 4’s Embarrassing Bodies, has spent two decades investigating body odors and specifically how they can be used as a form of communication between insects, plants and animals.
He began working with Medical Detection Dogs two years ago.
His research on malaria found that when someone contracts the disease, their body odor changes. No human would be able to detect any difference, but mosquitoes certainly can and find these people more attractive, which speeds up the transmission of the disease.
Logan figured that dogs would too, and his hunch has proved to be right.
The implications of this finding could be significant. Malaria remains a risk for half the world’s population and one of the problems with containing the disease is that some people are infectious, but do not show any symptoms, because they have some degree of immunity to it.
If dogs could point out these individuals, who could then be isolated and receive treatment, the spread of malaria could be radically restricted.
Logan and Guest were planning to roll out the malaria project when COVID-19 hit. Both of them, pretty well simultaneously, had the same thought: Could the same principles be applied to the new virus?
“We know that infections cause changes in body odor, that’s scientifically proven now,” Logan says on a video call.
“And we know that dogs can detect odors and learn the smell of odors very effectively. That is also scientifically proven and well-known. So to me, it was a no-brainer,” Logan says.
The pair put together a pitch for a UK government grant to investigate further.
Bio-detection dogs are already a familiar sight at international ports of entry and border crossings where they are used to find drugs, explosives and other contraband. Each dog can screen up to 250 people per hour.
“Essentially what you’re doing is you’re diverting their attention from drugs and explosives to a disease,” Logan says.
In May, Logan’s team at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, in collaboration with Medical Detection Dogs and Durham University, was awarded ￡500,000 (US$621,377) of government funding.
The hope is that dogs will be able to assist with early identification of COVID-19 and reduce the need for quarantine for travelers arriving in the UK.
Guest is clearly confident: “So far there’s never been a disease we can’t find.”
It is not hard to imagine that there might be some skepticism about the project.
“I know some people think it’s a wacky idea. When it was discovered that dogs could smell some of these diseases, you immediately got people saying: ‘OK, that’s fine, but how are you going to roll a dog out to every doctor’s surgery?’ But that was really never where this was ultimately going to go,” Guest says.
A behavioral psychologist by training, Guest spent many years working with aid dogs for hearing impaired people. Over time, she kept coming across reports of dogs who had alerted their owners to serious illnesses.
“I had a colleague whose dog warned her about a melanoma on her calf when she was in her early 20s,” she says, adding that “from her description, I knew this dog had smelt it, but I had no idea how I’d manage to ever prove this.”
The research became personal for Guest, too. She started Medical Detection Dogs in 2008, and a year later, she noticed that her own dog, a fox-red labrador called Daisy, was acting strangely around her. Normally placid, she kept jumping up at Guest, pawing at her chest. Guest checked and felt a lump.
“It was very, very deep-seated under that lump, but I had breast cancer. I was 45. My consultants both said that had Daisy not warned me, my prognosis would have been very different. I wouldn’t have had a mammogram for another five years probably,” Guest says.
Medical Detection Dogs currently has about 100 dogs assisting people one-to-one with a range of illnesses, including type 1 diabetes and postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome. They are trained to alert their owners to tiny odor changes, which might be a precursor to an emergency.
The charity also has a smaller division of bio-detection dog trained to find neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s, as well as cancer and malaria.
The COVID-19 project is currently in the phase of sample collection. Sterilized socks and stockings made from nylon, which clings to body odors especially well, and face masks have been sent out to about 3,200 staff of Britain’s National Health Service (NHS). Medical workers will wear them for a standardized amount of time before returning them to Logan’s lab for analysis.
Crucially, all of them will be asymptomatic.
“We’ll end up with a very high number of samples from people who are uninfected and a smaller group of samples from people who are infected,” Logan says.
“And that’s fine. Because, actually, we need a lot of controls. We need a lot of background noise for the dogs to ignore,” Logan adds.
An initial selection of six dogs is undergoing training under Guest’s supervision. They are an assortment of cocker spaniels, labradors, and one labradoodle.
Asher is the eldest. One to two years is peak age for a bio-detection dog. Guest typically starts them on a smell they like to find: sometimes a synthetic “unique training odor,” but often just a tennis ball.
“But don’t get me wrong, these dogs are going down to very, very low levels. So in training, they wouldn’t be finding a whole tennis ball. They’d be finding the residual odor on something that has been touched by the tennis ball. And only touched it for about 30 seconds,” Guest says.
Once Logan’s samples have been processed, they will be cut up into small pieces: some will be sent for further analysis, the rest will go to the dogs and their handlers, initially labeled, but ultimately double-blind. If COVID-19 does have a distinctive smell and the dogs can detect it, the trial will move to practical outreach.
AT TRAVEL HUBS
Logan imagines they will work with an airport, probably Heathrow Airport in London, and at train stations, that have a heavy footfall of commuters.
“If you’ve got a plane with 500 people coming off, 10 percent may be asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic. The dog can quickly say: ‘Bang, bang, bang. You, you, you.’ It’s a 0.5 second sniff. The dog won’t make the final decision. The person will have a test. But at the moment there’s no other way of rapidly screening people like that — especially asymptomatics,” Guest says.
For Logan, who hopes to have initial results from the project in August or September, the dogs could be “a quick win” while the search for a COVID-19 vaccine continues elsewhere.
“Any strategy that puts all your eggs into one basket is not a good strategy,” Logan says.
He is especially encouraged that he has already received messages from people convinced the virus does have a distinct odor.
“We’ve had a lot of people contact us, particularly medical workers, people that are in care homes and people in hospitals who are saying: ‘We can smell it. I can walk into a room and I can tell there are patients in here with COVID-19.’ We’ve got to take that with a pinch of salt, because that’s not scientific proof, but it gives us further hope that it does exist,” Logan says.
In the future, it is likely that a device, perhaps even our smartphone, will tell us we are ill before we have any idea ourselves.
Medical Detection Dogs is currently partnering with Andreas Mershin, a quantum physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Bits and Atoms, on using dogs to teach artificial-intelligence technology how to recognize the smell of prostate cancer.
Logan is also convinced that we will make increasing use of sensors, maybe one that’s worn on your skin or a device you blow into, similar to a breathalyzer.
For now though, our best hope might be dozing on Guest’s floor, after a hard morning sniffing for tennis balls.
In fact, Asher will not be deployed in COVID-19 searches. Because of his previous experience with malaria, it could not be guaranteed which disease he was stopping for.
His main contribution will be in confirming that COVID-19 does have its own smell.
“Because Asher has more experience, he’ll be able to tell me: ‘There’s definitely a difference here. Let’s crack on.’ He won’t go to the final phase, he’ll peel off and a young girl will come in,” Guest says, while looking over at Asher fondly and whispering: “But we haven’t told him that yet.”
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