Sunday, 29 Nov 2020

Guide dogs retrained to join elite coronavirus detection team

Three guide dogs who proved unsuitable for helping people with sight loss have been given an exciting new career opportunity.

If their training is successful, the trio will be enlisted to an elite canine team and deployed to public places as part of a trial to see if detection dogs could screen for coronavirus in a fast and non-invasive way.

It is hoped the dogs will be able to identify the odour of Covid-19, even among people displaying no symptoms, making them a valuable first line of defence against the bug.

Ivan, Maple and Spencer, all aged two, were bred and raised by the charity Guide Dogs but proved unsuitable for life aiding blind and partially sighted people.

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Instead their high energy and love of sniffing things out made them the perfect candidates for a change in career.

Ivan and Spencer, both Labrador-golden retriever crosses, and Maple, a black Labradoodle, will join Medical Detection Dogs’ elite team of Covid-19 detection dogs.

The charity has already trained dogs to detect diseases like cancer, Parkinson’s and bacterial infections, by sniffing samples in the training more.

Several dogs are now being taught how to spot coronavirus in the same way.

Following this stage of training, dogs like Ivan, Maple and Spencer will learn to detect the odour on individuals.

They passed their initial four-week trials with the charity, showing enthusiasm and stamina in scent detection games, and started official training on Thursday.

Medical Detection Dogs’ Dog Supply and Training Manager Chris Allen is training them at the charity’s head office near Milton Keynes.

He said: ‘We’re incredibly grateful to Guide Dogs for giving us these three fantastic dogs.

‘Growing up as guide dog puppies, they’ve already had lots of experience being out and about in busy public places and meeting lots of different people – a huge benefit for us.

‘The dogs thoroughly enjoy working – it’s a big game. We’re using their willingness to please, their drive, their wanting to use their nose, and shaping and redirecting it in a positive way.’

Director of Canine Affairs at Guide Dogs Tim Stafford said his charity was ‘delighted’ to be able to collaborate with Medical Detection Dogs and help it with its ‘ground-breaking’ work.

He added: ‘Although Ivan, Maple and Spencer were originally bred to be guide dogs, we always closely monitor the development and individual personalities of our dogs to ensure they are on the path in life that is right for them.

“Medical Detection Dogs has given these dogs a new career that suits their high energy and search drive, and everyone at Guide Dogs is excited to watch them go on to do amazing things.”

The Covid-19 detection dogs project is a collaboration between Medical Detection Dogs, the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and Durham University.

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