Next up in our ‘Animals with Jobs‘ series are hounds with some seriously well trained noses. These sleuths can find just about anything they’re trained to, from drugs and explosives, to specific foods, insects, people trapped by natural disasters, human remains, and even Coronavirus! Detection dogs have traditionally been employed at airports, police stations and borders, but with their sniffing-repertoire growing and growing they can now also be found in museums, medical testing laboratories and even on boats out in the ocean.
Detection dogs have an exceptional sense of smell, with Conservation Canines founder, biologist Sam Wasser comparing a trained dog’s ability to detect a specific scent to being able to taste a teaspoon of sugar dissolved in a million gallons of water.
Pretty impressive, right!
Highly motivated by positive reinforcement, the breeds often used for their sniffing prowess include Beagles, Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers. And when we delved a little deeper, we found many fascinating things that dogs help humans to find, through the power of smell.
Medical Detection Dogs are trained in the detection and recognition of human disease by odour. The dogs can help to prevent medical emergencies, save human lives and improve quality of life.
Many diseases such as Cancer, Malaria and Parkinson’s disease leave specific traces (or odour signatures) in a person’s body and bodily secretions. Cancer cells, or healthy cells affected by cancer, produce and release these odour signatures and research suggests that dogs can detect many types of cancers in humans, with their extraordinary power of smell.
Depending on the type of cancer, dogs are able to detect these signatures on a person’s skin, breath, urine, faeces or sweat and alert medical professionals to their presence, often allowing a much earlier detection of the disease that may otherwise have been possible.
New research suggests that dogs may also be able to assist in the early detection of Covod-19. With testing facilities around the world under severe pressure in their race to get the Coronavirus pandemic under control, trained dogs and their incredible noses could provide some much-needed assistance.
An international research team at France’s National Veterinary School of Alfort has been training detector dogs to sniff out traces of the novel coronavirus since March. Trained using sweat samples from people infected with COVID-19, the research indicates that most dogs can detect a positive one from a line of negative ones with 100% accuracy. Furthermore, it has been found that detector dogs were able to detect COVID-19 in infected people when they were still asymptomatic, before later testing positive.
The Coronavirus pandemic has been a huge challenge worldwide. Being able to find asymptomatic people infected with the virus would be a game-changer and our four-legged friends could hold the key.
A Work of art
In 2018, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts, enlisted the help of a Weimaraner puppy named Riley to inspect artifacts and priceless objects. He is a volunteer now trained to detect pests (like beetles and moths) that could cause damaging infestations in the museum.
The now three year old Riley is trained to sit down in front of an artifact if he smells an insect in or near it, which can help preserve thousands of priceless objects. He’s also now the star in a children’s book – The Adventures of Riley the Museum Dog!
Epic-curious! – searching for expensive delicacies
Traditionally the remit of pigs, Truffle foraging is another useful task that dogs can turn their noses to. And when it comes to truffle hunting, dogs have many advantages over pigs, not least of which is that they typically won’t eat the truffles, like their pig counterparts sometimes do! Pigs can also damage delicate tree root structures and in Italy, pigs are actually banned from truffle-hunting grounds because they damage the terrain.
Truffles are a highly expensive delicacy and with some US truffle varieties selling for $1,000 a pound, according to USA Today, they’ve earned their nickname “black gold.” Consequently, dogs that can sniff out truffles can create a lucrative business for their owners.
White European truffles can sell for as much as $3,700 a pound, making them the most expensive food in the world. One two-pound truffle sold back in 2012 for more than $300,000, while in 2014 a 4.5lb truffle sold for $61,250.
Old Sea Dog – Conservation Canines
Conservation Canines is the scent detection program of the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology. Their fantastic team of canines, most of which are former shelter dogs, are being trained to sniff out faeces from threatened and endangered species so their humans can study the animals it belongs to.
The university team seeks out dogs with insatiable energy and the chosen pups learn in a special program. Some of these trained dogs spend their career on a research boat because they are specifically searching for whale droppings. The dogs ride along on a boat and when they smell whale faeces they alert the humans by moving to the front of the vehicle. Once the scat is found, humans can use it for researching why these animals are in danger of becoming extinct, checking things like a whale’s health and reproductive status
Anyone who’s been through an airport, crossed national borders, or gone to a public school in the United States has seen detection dogs, noses diligently sniffing for illegal drugs or banned produce and invasive insects.
Dogs are considered to be the most reliable, versatile and cost-efficient explosives detectors and dogs trained to detect explosives are now the largest group of working scent-detection dogs in the world. Dogs are used routinely to screen the millions of people, goods and cargo crossing international borders through airports, seaports and other transport hubs and some well-trained dogs can even sniff out electronic devices to help solve crimes.
One famous example of a pup in this field is a labrador named Bear who uses his keen sniffing skills to find hidden thumb drives, phones, and other electronic devices that may contain illegal materials, like child pornography. Another rescue pup turned sniffing superstar, Bear is one of few dogs that has been specially trained to sniff out these sorts of electronics.
Down in the dumps! – Sewage Sniffers
You probably don’t spend much of your day thinking about sewers, but they’re pretty important to our lives. There are tons of things that can flow into sewers that pollute not only the environment, but our own water supply that we use to wash our stuff, bathe, and drink.
Luckily, we have dogs to keep us safe. Dogs can be trained to detect pollutants in water and track down their sources. They can sniff out raw sewage, dangerous chemicals and detergents, illegal pipe connections, or pipes that have broken down, among other things.
Water samples can be taken to test pollutants in a lab. The problem is that the results can take days or weeks to come through. Dogs, on the other hand, indicate immediately whether something is wrong and find the source right away.
These pups are helping to keep our water safe to protect the environment.