Now and then Marshall, a 2-year-old golden retriever, walks into Frances Skelton's room and lies at her feet. The visit is a spirit-lifter for the 85-year-old Skelton, a resident of Benton House of Sugar Hill, a senior living community in Sugar Hill, Georgia.
"I rub him and we're best buddies for a few minutes and then he goes on to someone else,” she says.
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But Marshall is no ordinary dog. He is one of a growing number of canines trained to sniff out COVID-19.
These dogs are able to detect coronavirus infections with astonishing accuracy rates — up to 95 percent. Though large-scale studies still are needed, canine COVID-19 detection programs are being developed in Russia, England, France, Germany and other countries.
The dogs are promoted as a reliable and relatively affordable way to test a large number of people in a short amount of time, such as at airports, hospitals or sports venues. In late January, the Miami Heat basketball team used COVID-19 detection dogs to screen fans at a game against the Los Angeles Clippers. If a dog sat down next to a ticket holder, that meant the virus was detected and that ticket holder was denied entrance to the arena.
Perhaps more importantly for nursing homes and senior living communities, the dogs are seen as a critical future tool to sniff out other common health concerns, including influenza and urinary tract infections — viral and bacterial issues known for affecting seniors.
'Extra layer of protection'
At Benton House of Sugar Hill, Marshall uses a different method for signaling the virus. He smells a sterile swab used to collect a sweat sample from residents. When a handler asks whether he smells COVID-19, he either taps with his nose or visually holds his gaze on the handler's right or left hand. The left means yes, the right means no.
Mike Allard, CEO of the Benton House family of senior living communities, reached out to service dog trainers Canine Assistants after reading about COVID-19-sniffing dogs in a news article he found on Twitter.
He wound up collaborating with the Georgia-based nonprofit, which already was training dogs to detect seizures or changes in blood sugar. Allard, who had donated to the dog training company in past years, provided initial seed money for training, vaccinations, food and boarding for five dogs to be put on the COVID-19 case. In addition to golden retriever Marshall, the four other dogs will be placed in other Benton House communities around Atlanta. The dogs will be used to detect the virus in residents and staff as well as ultimately in visitors.