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Massachusetts Becomes First U.S. State to Enlist Covid-Sniffing Canines

Duke and Huntah are first dogs used by law enforcement to detect coronavirus cases

Officers Paul Douglas (left) and Theodore Santos (right) stand with their newest Covid-19 K9 unit: a female black lab named Huntah (left) and a male golden lab-retriever mix, Duke (right). (Bristol County Sheriff's Office)
smithsonianmag.com

With a sense of smell up to 100,000 times more acute than humans, dogs can be taught to sniff out just about anything, including cancer and even electronics. In fact, tail-wagging police dogs are trained to detect drugs, firearms, missing people—and now Covid-19.

Two canines in Massachusetts are the first to be used by a law enforcement agency to snuffle the virus. Employed by the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office, they have been trained to distinguish the unique odor of Covid-19 on personal protective equipment, clothing and surfaces, police captain Paul Douglas tells Alexandra Leslie and Matt Paddock of WPRI-TV in Providence, Rhode Island.

“The dogs can detect the Covid odor on a counter or table if it was recently touched by a Covid-positive individual, or even detect the odor on a tissue used by someone with Covid,” he says.

The Covid canines were trained at a detection program developed by Florida International University’s International Forensic Research Institute. Duke and Huntah—Bostonese for Hunter—recently participated in a graduation ceremony held by the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office, according to WBZ CBS Boston.

“This is all science,” Douglas tells WBZ CBS Boston. “This program was developed by professors, doctors and scientists at FIU, and we couldn’t be more proud or excited to execute it here in Bristol County.”

Born two weeks apart, the 9-month-old dogs are step-siblings who share the same father. Duke, a male golden lab-retriever mix, is paired with police officer Theodore Santos while Huntah, a female black lab, works with Douglas.

In training the canines, FIU used medical masks worn by Covid-positive patients. Ultraviolet rays were used to kill the contagion without harming the odor, thus making them safe as training tools for the dogs and officers, WPRI-TV reports.

In the months to come, the law-enforcement pooches will be taught to also detect missing people, the sheriff’s department states in a social media post. Officers hope to get more masks worn by Covid-19 patients from the New Bedford Fire Department and local EMS providers for future training aids.

The Covid canines are being used to detect the virus upon request at schools, town buildings, non-profits, nursing homes, Councils on Aging, public safety facilities, medical facilities and other sites in Bristol County.

The sheriff’s office advises that its Covid-19 detection program, which can identify the Delta variant, is not a substitute for a medical test, reports Jenna Romaine of Changing America. It’s just another way of helping to identify individuals who may have been exposed to the virus.

“It’s best to think of it as a decontamination tool,” Douglas says.

About David Kindy
David Kindy

David Kindy is a journalist, freelance writer and book reviewer who lives in Plymouth, Massachusetts. He writes about history, culture and other topics for Air & Space, Military History, World War II, Vietnam, Aviation History, Providence Journal and other publications and websites.

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