Sextiped Valley column: Essential work
Even if you’re a COVID-19 news junkie, you could have easily missed the stories about how, in the UK, the U.S., France and elsewhere, dogs are being trained for deployment as virus-detection dogs. Disease detection dogs’ accuracy meets and often exceeds WHO standards for medical tests, identifying malaria, Parkinson’s, many types of cancer, diabetic emergencies, seizures and more.
Dr. Claire Guest, co-founder of the British charity Medical Detection Dogs, working under a shared grant with Durham University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, is certain their dogs will prove able to detect this coronavirus and will then “move into a second phase to test them in live situations, following which we hope to work with other agencies to train more dogs for deployment.”
In France, trainers are already re-training Search and Rescue and Fire Brigade sniffer dogs to detect COVID-19.
Here in the U.S., at Penn State Veterinary School’s Working Dog Center, Director Cynthia Otto explains that “If (the) pilot is successful, it could lead to an alternative test and new technology that could expedite screening of people, including asymptomatic carriers.” Dr. James Logan in the UK and Dr. Otto agree that the potential benefit is huge. A dog could easily screen 4,000–5,000 people per day. Training time needed to prepare a detector dog for screening deployments is estimated to be one to six months.
Since one of the chief stumbling blocks to getting the upper hand against the virus is the lack of accurate and affordable tests and personnel to administer them, why isn’t this potentially game-changing employment of dogs getting a lot of enthusiastic publicity?
How rare and special are the required canine abilities? A dog must have an unusually acute sense of smell, and the ability to be trained, states Dr. Otto. Dogs are masters of olfactory acuity, and as for the ability to be trained … is anyone questioning this? Canine trainability is the foundation on which our interspecies partnership has been built, over millenia. There’s no shortage of dogs with good noses, so why are there just a few dozen being prepped for this new, critically important work, instead of hundreds, or thousands? After all, one trained dog who could screen 5,000 people a day would only need one human handler, who could keep safely distant while the dog, not susceptible, can sniff without risk.
Unfortunately, while there are plenty of capable dogs, there is a shortage of one critical component: Dog trainers, and an infrastructure of facilities in which these skilled professionals prepare dogs for the various important tasks for which they are so well-suited, are few and far between. The big money devoted to solving problems that dogs are uniquely qualified to handle usually flow into research aimed at inventing high-tech devices instead. The potential profit is too high to resist.
Dr. George Preti, a chemist, has long worked to isolate chemical bio-markers of ovarian cancer using spectrometers and chromatographs, testing promising compounds against trained dogs’ response to actual cancer tissue. “I’m not embarrassed to say that a dog is better than my instruments,” he states.
According to U. Penn professor Charlie Johnson, specialist in experimental nanophysics, this is all being directed toward the goal of a mechanical, hand-held sensor that can detect cancer chemicals in the clinic. “We are effectively building an electronic nose,” he has said.
It’s worth asking why, when lives could be saved by dogs’ scent detection abilities, we hold out for a mechanical device instead of training and deploying medical alert dogs in the appropriate numbers, everywhere they are needed.
What if every community had its cadre of skilled dog trainers, ready to develop dog/human partnerships to meet specific community needs? We want to keep people with weapons and explosives off airplanes, and drugs out of schools — and we have sniffer dogs for that, but not enough to provide 24-7, round the clock security that does not threaten innocent people’s privacy. We could do that. Dogs capable of learning those tasks are all around us, un- or underemployed. Dogs could safeguard nursing home residents inclined to wander, without making the places into prisons. Dogs could patrol borderlands where interfacing wildlife and human communities are problematic, hazing wildlife that encroach, without resorting to lethal methods or expensive and unsightly physical barriers. Likewise, dogs could patrol schools — a safer and less traumatizing protection against armed intruders than teachers carrying guns.
Like us, dogs enjoy learning and developing skills they are suited to and rewarded for, especially in bonded partnership with a human. In recent years, bed bug detector dogs, conservation dogs who assist biologists to find and monitor endangered species populations, or find invasive plants, or alert to toxic chemical spills, have created satisfying and decent-paying careers for their human partners.
During the shutdown phase of this pandemic, dogs have provided incredible companionship and support to home-bound people who live alone, and many families have adopted dogs during this period when enough time to make them part of the family became suddenly available. Predicting how work will have changed when restrictions are lifted is difficult, but clearly we are facing a very different world, post-COVID. Not only will jobs have been lost, but people’s willingness to jump back onto the hectic treadmill of consumer-driven work life shows signs of changing.
Maybe the career fairs of the near future should make room for the profession of dog training. Not only training dogs to do the many valuable things they can do, but training to develop the dog training profession to build out an essential workforce, the potential of which we have overlooked, dazzled by high-tech solutions that promise astronomical profits for a few, yet fail to meet real needs.
Laurie Raymond owns High Tails Dog & Cat Outfitters in Glenwood Springs.
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