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Trio of sniffer dogs recruited by Vancouver health officials to detect COVID-19

Micro, Yoki and Finn were headhunted for their roles 6 months ago to help detect and prevent COVID-19.

Finn, a member of Vancouver Coastal Health's canine team | Twitter: Health Minister Adrian Dix @adriandix

A trio of infection-sniffing dogs are the latest recruits at Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) after being drafted into the agency’s canine detection team to identify cases of COVID-19.

Dogs have more than 300 million olfactory receptors and are able to detect bacterial and viral infections, as well as cancer, with their accuracy being comparable to laboratory diagnostic tests.

For five years the canine detection team at VCH - dubbed Canines for Care - have been helping healthcare workers in BC sniff out bacteria such as Clostridioides difficile (C. difficile), a germ that causes severe diarrhoea and colitis.

But now the team’s new additions have added COVID-19 detection to their roster with the arrival of Labrador Retrievers, Micro and Yoki, along with English Springer Spaniel, Finn, who were headhunted for their roles 6 months ago.

Allison Muniak, Executive Director of Quality and Patient Safety, Infection Prevention and Control and Risk Management at VCH, said in a statement the team wanted “to tackle COVID-19 infection prevention from every possible angle.”

The project aims to explore the signature scent of COVID-19 and develop a dog training program - with a goal to potentially use COVID-19 canine detection work including screenings in airports, on cruise ships and at public events.

The K9 crew

Two of the new recruits, Micro and Finn, passed their inauguration tests with flying colours with 100 per cent sensitivity and 93 per cent specificity in identifying COVID-19 in a laboratory setting. Yoki, the third dog to go through the trials, passed with similar results.

Dr. Marthe Charles, Head of Division of Medical Microbiology and Infection Prevention and Control at VCH, said: “The fact that we're seeing such strong results speaks to the rigor of our training program. These findings are superior to certain antigen tests available on the market. We're very pleased with the results so far and are excited to continue this work.”

Micro, whose official name is Bournepark Bobby, was recruited from hunting and detection kennel Bournepark Gundogs in the Netherlands. Born in 2019, the purebred Labrador retriever

was selected because of his intense hunt drive, desire to please and his eagerness to learn new tasks.

Finn, whose official name is Rockey's Invictus Huck Finn Gone Abroad, is a purebred English springer spaniel from field trial and hunting trainer Rockey’s Kennel in Utah in the US. Born in 2019, Finn was selected because of his biddable nature, his intense search ethic and natural need to retrieve and possess.

Both Micro and Finn have been taught to freeze and stare at the scent to indicate the target odour when training.

Yoki in training | Photo: Twitter/@adriandix

And Yoki, a Black Labrador and Golden Retriever mix, joined the squad from The Pacific Assistance Dogs Society in Burnaby, as she didn’t quite fit the mark for being a service dog. Her passions lie in ball chasing and anything that rewards her for food, making her a “perfect detection dog”.

“Every dog can sniff but not every dog can work.”

Training dogs to sniff out COVID-19 - a relatively new virus - is no small feat. The Canines for Care squad started from scratch 6 months ago, headhunting the trio from around the world to join the pack.

Teresa Zurberg, Canine Scent Detection Specialist and nationally-recognized canine handler, said: “Every dog can sniff but not every dog can work. We worked with scent detection teams around the world to find dogs that have the right combination of genetics and also the potential to do this work.”

The Canine Care scent detection team

Once the squad was in place, the human team developed a methodology to access appropriate COVID-19 samples and conduct training in a way that's safe for the dogs and their handlers.

They were able to collect saliva, breath and sweat samples from consenting Covid-19 patients in the health region, with the samples prepared in a way that removes risk of transmission of the virus, ensuring the team were protected.

Adrian Dix, Minister of Health for BC, said: “The ability of the healthcare workers, researchers, dog handlers, and three talented dogs at Vancouver Coastal Health to develop a new virus scent detection program from scratch is an enormous accomplishment.

“This is one of the countless examples of the way people in our healthcare system have stepped up to support all of us in a time of great need, keeping us safer and more protected from COVID-19.”


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