Specially-trained K9s successfully sniff out COVID-19 in Mass. schools

Coronavirus

LAKEVILLE, Mass. (WPRI) — School leaders in the Freetown-Lakeville district tell 12 News the program that allows for COVID-19 sniffing dogs to search high traffic areas inside schools has been a success.

“We think it’s one more opportunity for us to stick to our goal of keeping our kids safely in school and in-person,” Superintendent Rick Medeiros said.

The K9s, Duke and Huntah, have gone through all five schools in the Freetown-Lakeville district since the start of the school year.

12 News cameras got to see the dogs in action on Thursday at Apponequet Regional High School in Lakeville.

“They don’t necessarily go up in individuals, what they do is they go into individual areas, identifying locations,” Medeiros said.

That includes auditoriums, lecture halls, cafeterias, gyms and some classrooms, in an effort to sniff out if someone who is positive for COVID-19 was in that space.

Medeiros said seating charts and using technology that allows students to scan into class make it easy to follow-up with who may need to be tested, while also making the space is disinfected.

“We can go back an reidentify where a student was if a dog’s identifying an area,” Medeiros said.

Duke and Huntah have identified several seats and locations in a lecture hall and two classrooms where they detected the unique odor of the virus.

Last summer, the dogs were trained through a program developed by Florida International University’s International Forensic Research Institute, led by DeEtta Mills.

“When you’re infected with a virus, your metabolism changes, which, in turn, changes the odor that you emit, and it’s unique to COVID,” Mills said.

“We know that the odor profile is different because we’ve done the chemistry on it,” she continued. “So that way, we know when they give an alert it’s a true alert, and it’s not somebody that’s sick with something else, because we did those tests.”

Mills explained the dogs were trained first by sniffing out masks of hospital workers, though the virus was inactivated to be made safe for training.

“Then we use positive reinforcement like we do with any other training and teach them to find a new scent,” Mills added.

Mills said in another study involving the masks of American Airlines employees, the K9s detected the virus in the masks of about six employees who ended up testing positive for COVID-19.

“It does help mitigate the spread,” she said.

Mills said no matter which version of the virus – delta, omicron or another variant – the dogs are still trained to detect the key compounds of the virus.

“They’re able to associate that with what they were trained to do,” Mills said.

The Bristol County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO) said Huntah and Duke were the first law enforcement K9s in the country trained to detect COVID-19.

The Sheriff’s Office celebrated the dogs graduating from the agency’s COVID-19 Detection Academy last July.

Sheriff Thomas Hodgson said the dogs have also had a calming effect inside schools.

“When the K9s come in, these dogs are loveable dogs, but they come in here identify any areas that may potentially be at risk for people to contract the disease,” Hodgson said. “It gives them a calmness, and a feeling like, ‘OK, the law enforcement community is here with this K9, and they’re going to protect us and make us feel safer in addition to the benefit of having a K9 there, which kids, everybody love a K9, right?”

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