What if your boss told you that instead of daily temperature monitoring at the office for COVID-19, there would now be mandatory morning meetings with Noel for a thorough sniff-check and some belly rubs? Your boss would also make sure to clarify that Noel is most definitely not a human, but a beagle specially trained to sniff out the COVID-19 virus with 98% accuracy—and she fully consents to the belly rubs.
Get your lint rollers ready, because this may be an option for some workplaces in the near future! Here at BARK, we're bringing a pair of COVID-sniffing beagles to our NYC offices.
Trained by BioScent, an organization that trains medical scent-detection dogs as part of the Florida International University (FIU) Detection Dog Program, the dogs are eager to use their noses, and we're excited to use this visit as a pilot for future events like our Open BARK Night comedy series and dog community gatherings.
Training Beagles, Bassets, and "Bagels" at BioScent
Noel is one of many dogs trained by BioScent Detection Dogs. The organization specializes in training beagles, basset hounds, and “bagels” (beagle–basset hound mixes, not the doughy kind with shmear) for medical scent detection and, in this case, the detection of COVID-19.
BioScent Detection Dogs' collaborative research partner, Florida International University’s (FIU) Global Forensic and Justice Center, has been the leader in scientific advancement for canine scent detection through their Detection Dog Program for more than two decades, including having published nearly a dozen peer-reviewed scientific research projects. (Be sure to check out @FIU_Forensics to see more of their work on Instagram!)
Before training dogs to detect COVID-19, FIU’s Detection Dog Program put those sniffers to work helping humans identify other important scents, like:
- Fire accelerants during investigations
- Drug detection
- Human scent
- Biologicals such as mold and fungi
- Agricultural diseases
- Human diseases and viruses
Why Are Beagles Used As Scent-Detection Dogs?
Although the Detection Dog Program has trained breeds like the Belgian Malinois and Dutch shepherd in the past, beagles, basset hounds, and “bagels” were chosen for this new, important role because of their super-powered sense of smell, eagerness to work, and friendly disposition.
They’re able to sniff out a positive COVID-19 patient with 98% accuracy—even more accurate than current PCR COVID-19 testing! This is great news when it comes to early detection of COVID-19, and could mean big things for companies looking to move employees back to a safe office environment with the help of these tail-wagging virus detectors.
In a recent study of American dog parents conducted by BARK, it's become apparent that the pandemic has strengthened bonds between dog parents and their work-from-home co-workers, leaving many people skeptical to return to work and wondering what barriers exist when it comes to bringing their dogs with them. A safe office environment with healthy humans is a step toward easing back into normal work life, and COVID-sniffing dogs may be a new way to achieve that.
How Do Dogs Learn to Detect COVID-19?
Heather Junqueira, founder of BioScent Detection Dogs, has 64 dogs currently in training at the Tampa, Florida facility. That’s a lot of puppy noses to boop (and also 1,024 toe beans to adore, in case anyone was wondering).
It takes about 6 months for a puppy to master detecting a new odor. The initial training for each puppy has one major goal in mind:
POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT TRAINING
Once the pups learn that finding a scent means getting something they love, the real work can begin. Trainers use a control scent inside of a canister to accustom puppies to the process. After the puppy learns to accurately detect the control scent, the trainers can then add new scents (like COVID-19) by placing a mask or other object previously worn by a COVID-19-positive patient inside one of the canisters. When the puppy detects the correct canister, they sit to indicate that they've found the scent, and are immediately given a treat. This process is repeated over months to get those noses working at 98% accuracy.
Once fully trained, the dogs are sent all over the country to sniff out COVID-19 in real-life settings like airports, schools, sporting events, and even Justin Bieber concerts where Noel, one of BioScent’s beagles, detected five positive cases! These pups may soon be joining office teams as well, helping employees feel safer transitioning back to office routines and moving one step closer to normalcy.
Follow along with these hounds on Instagram @bioscentdetectiondogs!
And below are the bios of the dogs visiting the BARK Offices this week.
Noel was taken in by BioScent in late 2019, after being rescued from a high-kill shelter in Central Florida. Noel had wounds on her neck from being tied up, signs of abuse, and was untrustworthy of people. With some TLC and socialization, Noel quickly became a shining star at BioScent, and is described as stoic, graceful, and dedicated to her work. Noels first “BIG” job was working at a Triller Fight Club event in Atlanta, where she became the star of the show, winning over the hearts of staff and several of the performers, including Justin Bieber. She’s since traveled across the country, providing an extra layer of protection against COVID-19.
Buddy is a two-year-old Beagle. His mother, Izzy, was surrendered to Sarasota County (FL) Animal Services to be euthanized, after she was attacked by a raccoon and needed to be quarantined as a possible rabies case. BioScent created a special quarantine facility for Izzy, who became a permanent resident. She's had several litters of puppies, many of which have become detection dogs and service dogs. Buddy has Izzy’s sweet temperament, and the desire to work.
Solo was orphaned after his mother and siblings passed away during birth. Solo required bottle feeding and wasn’t accepted by a surrogate mom. BioScent founder Heather took on the role of "mom," and even set up a bassinet for him beside her bed. Solo was a fighter and grew stronger by the day. According to Heather, she’s not sure Solo knows he’s a beagle. His best friend is Heather’s German Shephard and thinks he’s just as big as his “older brother.” Solo loves to fetch and play tug of war. He recently began detector dog training and is already proving himself to be a future BioScent star.