“A dog: companion, friend, protector, playmate and life-changer. Dogs add a dimension to our lives that otherwise would be just a vacant spot. They work for us, guard us, play with us, entertain us, love us, keep us company and change our lives.”- H. Norman Wright
Our canine friends have always come to our assistance in times of crisis. Over the years, dogs have become inseparable from human beings. Dogs have been used over the years to sniff out contraband, especially among travellers; it has become commonplace to see dogs at airports. Dogs have also been trained to sniff out certain types of cancers. It comes as no surprise that our canine friends are once again being called upon to come to the aid of the human race. It is often said that dogs are man’s best friend. As the world approaches 4.2 million cases of the novel coronavirus researchers are attempting to train dogs to detect the virus. This possible detection by dogs could assist in the mass uncovering of people with the virus. Interestingly, the breed of dogs currently in training to detect COVID-19 is the Labrador Retriever.
Why the Labrador Retriever?
The Labrador Retriever has long been regarded as the most suitable pet throughout the world. This breed is specially suited for hunting and often trained to hunt with gun sportsmen; the Lab has rightfully earned the title of a “gun dog.”
Labrador Retrievers are famously known as working companions and are used for various purposes, such as physical assistance and personal protection. However, its loyalty and friendly temperament also make the Lab an outstanding pet. One of their trademark characteristic features is a strong jaw set in a broad head. These dogs also have strong legs and shoulders, which add to their fast pace. At full adult size, they stand at about 21 to 24 inches in height at the withers (the highest part of the back), with a weight of 50 to 80 pounds. The coat is straight, dense, and short, with the outer coat being a bit coarse, and the undercoat thick and soft. This makes the Labrador all but completely waterproof, with the thick undercoat protecting the skin, and the outer guard coat whisking water away.
Labradors have a certain distinct elegance, carrying themselves with an upright, proud demeanor, but with a friendly facial expression that invites new acquaintances and endears them to their human families. The dense hard coat comes in yellow, black and chocolate colour. Labrador Retrievers are friendly and make for good companions. However, they require much exercise like swimming and games of fetch to keep physically and mentally fit.
The International Business Times reported that health experts state if the training project is successful, people will soon see life-saving four-legged animals at airports, hospitals, and businesses sniffing out the deadly pathogen and preventing it from spreading. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine declare that this could revolutionize the response of humanity to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Dr James Logan said dogs have a keen sense of smell and have been known to detect subtle changes in the skin’s temperature. This means canines could potentially tell if a person has a fever. Dr Logan is the head of the London University’s disease control department. Researchers at the university had demonstrated in the past that dogs could detect malaria infections in humans. They now hope to provide dogs with similar training that would enable them to detect COVID-19 infections.
After training, they plan to deploy six coronavirus-sniffing canines to airports in the United Kingdom. Dr James Logan, epidemiologist at Durham University, said each individual dog can screen up to 250 people per hour. In the absence of a vaccine, it is evident that more wide scale testing is required in order to curtail the spread of the coronavirus.
In the United States of America, eight Labrador Retrievers began training at the University of Pennsylvania. The Washington Post reports that the pups are being trained to identify a particular odour for a food reward. The same source added that after this learning phase, the pups will be trained to sniff out coronavirus using saliva and urine samples collected from patients who tested negative and positive for COVID-19.
Cynthia Otto, director of the Working Dog Center at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, states that other viruses give off a particular scent. If the dogs’ 300 million scent receptors can be trained to smell the novel coronavirus, they could eventually be used in public places such as airports, hospitals, and businesses to quickly and easily screen large numbers of people.
“The potential impact of these dogs and their capacity to detect COVID-19 could be substantial,” Otto said. “This study will harness the dog’s extraordinary ability to support the nation’s COVID-19 surveillance systems, with the goal of reducing community spread.”
What about the possibility of the dogs contracting COVID-19? In March, a pet dog in Hong Kong tested positive for COVID-19, and experts suspected that it had caught the disease from its infected owner. However, some experts were doubtful about the dog’s diagnosis. Initially, the animal did not receive a blood test that would have confirmed the presence of coronavirus antibodies created to fight off the infection, and a blood test that was performed later did not find any coronavirus antibodies, Live Science reported. Then again, it’s possible that the dog experienced a mild immune response to COVID-19 that did not require the production of specific antibodies. Another dog, a pug in North Carolina, also tested positive for COVID-19 after likely catching it from its owners.
We should brace ourselves for the new normal which will result from this pandemic. Our canine friends should also have the ability to detect those persons who are asymptomatic. Individuals who are asymptomatic have the coronavirus without exhibiting symptoms. As we approach 300, 000 worldwide deaths from the coronavirus and as the business sectors pressure governments worldwide to reopen the society, we should prepare to see our four-legged friends on the frontline in the fight to curtail this pandemic. All hands are needed on deck to defeat this pandemic. The University of Pennsylvania announced that trained dogs could be ready by July to start sniffing out COVID-19 in humans. This initiative is clearly aimed at assisting humankind and as such, it is hoped all the success necessary will accompany it.
In the words of Orhan Pamuk, dogs do speak, but only to those who know how to listen.
Wayne Campbell is an educator and social commentator with an interest in development policies as they affect culture and or gender issues.
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