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University of Adelaide to lead project training Australian COVID-19 sniffer dogs

Clare Peddie, July 30, 2020 9:00AM The Advertiser

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University of Adelaide researchers Dr Susan Hazel and Dr Anne-Lise Chaber with labrador Fergus. media_cameraUniversity of Adelaide researchers Dr Susan Hazel and Dr Anne-Lise Chaber with labrador Fergus.

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Sniffer dogs will be trained to identify people with COVID-19 in Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne as part of an international research effort.

The University of Adelaide is co-ordinating the Australian program using experienced detector dogs from across the nation.

Lecturer Dr Anne-Lise Chaber, who has been following research overseas with interest, started the local project together with the National Veterinary School in Alfort, France.

“We know that dogs are really good at detecting some other diseases, it’s proven,” she said.

Dr Chaber said French research led by Professor Dominique Grandjean in France had already completed the proof-of-concept* study.

“Some of the dogs had 100 per cent success in detecting sweat from people who were COVID positive,” she said.

Those were experienced detection dogs, originally trained for explosives detection, search and rescue, or colon* cancer diagnosis.

Sniffer Dogs media_cameraDogs have many jobs. These two are Cola and Willow, who work with the NT Department of Primary Resources to sniff out fire ants, a species of ant that is particularly destructive to the NT’s agriculture. Picture: Katrina Bridgeford

A total of 18 dogs at three sites were trained to pick the positive COVID-19 sweat sample from a line-up of samples, using positive reinforcement in the form of play with their favourite toy for each correct answer. Dogs trained in this way were also able to identify infected individuals who had no symptoms.

“This is very important if we want to stop the disease,” said Dr Chaber.

“Because the problem is people often don’t know they have COVID, they continue their normal life and then they contaminate others.”

The first COVID-19 detection dogs could be working within months, patrolling airports and screening staff in hospitals or travellers in quarantine.

They will support existing detection methods such as standard diagnostic* laboratory testing but dogs’ work can be done more rapidly and repeatedly.

The canine detection units may even prove to be more sensitive and specific, Dr Chaber said.

“We are aiming to provide another screening tool in the battle against COVID.”

“The dogs will be quicker and more cost effective than (currently used) PCR* (tests).”

Senior lecturer and co-chief investigator Dr Susan Hazel said her pet labrador Fergus, 9, had the right equipment but had not been trained.

“We have dogs lined up ready to use,” she said.

“Some are trained for other things like explosives, but we also expect to train up some new dogs as part of the project.

“We’re hoping the Federal Government might even become interested and resource more dogs to be trained specifically for this, which is happening in other countries,” Dr Hazel said.

media_cameraThis is Sasha, a sniffer dog trained to find the endangered insect Alpine stonefly in Victoria’s high country for a La Trobe University trial. Sahsa detects the odour of nests without harming larvae or the insects.
media_cameraPolice offers with their sniffer dogs during a military parade in Santiago, Chile, in 2019. Police in many countries use sniffer dogs to help them in their work. Picture: AFP

GLOSSARY

  • proof of concept: a pilot or preliminary study, to show something could work
  • colon: the large, or lower, intestine
  • diagnostic: for diagnosing illness or other problems
  • PCR: stands for polymerase chain reaction, which is a way of making many copies of a piece of DNA in a laboratory. Used when testing a sample for infection

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QUICK QUIZ

  1. What three cities will the dogs work in?
  2. Which country is working on this project with Australian scientists?
  3. What work are experienced sniffer dogs doing already?
  4. Give two examples of settings in which the dogs could work.
  5. What is the name of Dr Hazel’s dog?

LISTEN TO THIS STORY

CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES
1. Working Animals
Today’s story is an example of how animals can work with us in very important jobs. Can you think of other examples? Write down as many as you can think of. Use your examples to help you to write a paragraph explaining why working animals are so important

Time: allow 20 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Health and Physical Education, Science

2. Extension
The researchers used positive reinforcement to help train the sniffer dogs. Find the sentence in the story that says this. Use the sentence to write your own explanation of what you think positive reinforcement means. Think of something new that you need to learn or something that you (or other kids) could learn to do better. List three types of positive reinforcement that you think could help you.

Time: allow at least 15 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Personal and Social Capability, Critical and Creative Thinking

VCOP ACTIVITY
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 3 nouns and add an adjective (describing word) to the nouns.

HAVE YOUR SAY: Do you think this idea could work? What would you train a dog to do?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be published until approved by editors.

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