“Put your sniffer away,” is a common retort in my house as my 7-year-old Australian shepherd comes around the corner, nostrils flaring, any time someone even thinks about opening a jar of peanut butter or cooking up some bacon.
Her uncanny ability comes from the 300 million olfactory receptors she has at her disposal, compared to my measly 6 million. “All dogs see the world through their noses,” says Jerry Johnson, president of Bio-Detection K9, part of the Alabama-based 360K9.
At the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race in July, runners will benefit from those olfactory abilities in the form of COVID-sniffing dogs reporting for duty.
The race will be smaller than previous years, but a whopping 30,000 to 40,000 runners are still expected to come through over two days. And with a crowd that size, race directors are pulling out all the COVID stops.
Working with an advisory group made up of doctors and public health officials, they’ve put together two plans for vaccinated participants and for unvaccinated racers.
With a simple proof of vaccination, runners will be able to get their bib and be on their way. “If you come to the Peach Tree Health and Fitness Expo with a vaccination card, it’s going to feel as much like a normal race day as it possibly could,” says Jay Holder, Atlanta Track Club’s director of marketing and communications.
“Our goal is just to make this as safe as possible for everybody and we’re following the science. The science says that getting vaccinated is the safest possible thing we can do. And if someone doesn’t want to get the vaccine or doesn’t feel comfortable getting the vaccine, that’s absolutely their prerogative. They can either do the virtual event or go through the screening,” says Holder.
Screening for the unvaccinated cohort starts with a dog-sniffing test, because COVID (like all other viruses) has a distinct scent.
The training behind biodetection dogs, provided by 360K9, has been in the works detecting viruses and bacteria for 10 years. It started in 2011 with a USDA grant to help farmers detect a difficult and invasive citrus bacteria. By the time the disease showed up as cankers on the trees, it was typically too late to save the tree.
“We taught the dogs to detect the bacteria in a laboratory using a training aid,” says Johnson.
After years of success in agriculture, the goal was to move on to detecting viruses in human hosts. A grant for bird flu was in the works when COVID-19 entered the picture, and they knew it was time to pivot.
“We’ve been able to take the previous technology that we learned, how to create the training aid to find viruses in agriculture. Same process, now we’ve developed the training aid on the human virus and we trained the dog on the same methodology. And it’s been very successful,” says Johnson.
Their proprietary method involves extracting proteins from the virus, so the dogs are able to train on the scent with a deactivated portion of that virus.
“You teach them a specific target to look for, when they find it they get their toy, which they like more than anything in the world. They’re just playing the game of search,” says Johnson.
So, what good dogs might you see on race day? Labrador retrievers, German shorthaired pointers, springers, German shepherds, and Belgian malinois are ideal for the job because of their high olfactory ability, working dog temperament, and instinctive ability to hunt and search.
Other events like the NBA, NASCAR, and some music festivals have already begun utilizing these biodetection buddies with success.
The best part (other than the opportunity to see a sweet pup, of course) is that this method will allow a lot of people to avoid getting swabbed up into their olfactory receptors for no reason.
But if the dog does detect COVID, runners will have to take a rapid test to verify their COVID status, because the dogs are not an FDA-approved detection method. If the test comes back positive, then the participant will be asked to run virtually or be offered their money back.
It’s a lot of steps, some of which may change as the pandemic situation changes between now and July. Race organizers, however, hope runners will get vaccinated (even running a vaccination clinic for all participants and volunteers) and skip the whole screening process.
Both Holder and Johnson are looking to the future. “We hope that some of the other running events and race organizers can maybe learn something from what we do,” says Holder.
For Johnson, while he hopes COVID-sniffing canines hold a temporary position in the event space, he knows that their abilities will one day be needed again. “If there’s another virus or pathogen that comes along, we know how to capture it, create the proteins, create the training aid, and now quickly train the dogs to find it,” he says.
It’s thanks to those COVID-sniffing dogs and their handlers (and all the amazing people behind the vaccination efforts) that running is starting to look a little more normal again.