Huntah hasn’t been attending school for very long — but she understands the assignment.
On a recent afternoon in a schoolroom in Fairhaven, the 14-month-old Labrador retriever kept her nose to the ground, sniffing around for signs of something amiss. Soon, she “got a hit,” said Captain Paul Douglas, an officer with the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office K-9 Unit, and Huntah’s handler.
The black lab sat down in front of an empty chair, her signal that she had picked up a scent. She had found what she was looking for: possible signs of COVID-19.
The sheriff’s office has launched a program that enlists two young dogs — Huntah and her counterpart, Duke, a yellow lab — to scour nooks and crannies in 15 Bristol County schools where the odor of the virus may have been left behind.
Since September, the dogs have been roaming through empty classrooms, hallways, auditoriums, and communal spaces in the Freetown-Lakeville school district and are now inspecting schools in Fairhaven and Norton as well. School and law enforcement officials say the dogs bring another layer of protection against COVID-19, as cases continue to surge.
Huntah and Duke were trained last summer in a program developed by Florida International University’s Global Forensic and Justice Center after the sheriff’s office reached out to experts there and expressed interest in their research.
Dr. DeEtta Mills, director of the university’s International Forensic Research Institute and among the founding researchers of the center’s Detection Dog Program, said the dogs use their wet snouts to “detect the metabolic changes that a person’s body mounts to fight off” COVID-19.
“An analogy would be the change in body odor that we as humans can detect when someone works out strenuously,” she said by e-mail. “The ‘body odor’ changes because through exercise our body metabolizes differently. The odor changes in a person infected with COVID-19 because the body turns on different defense pathways in the body to fight off the disease; COVID-19 odor is unique to those who are infected.”
“If they miss it, it’s usually a false positive in that they alert as a positive hit but there is nothing there,” she said.
Law enforcement has long turned to dogs for their keen sense of smell to detect drugs, explosives, and illegal foods and plants. They’re also used to detect insects and other pests.
Mills, who has worked closely with the sheriff’s office, said the dogs were trained over several months using a “training aid” made from masks worn by people infected with COVID-19. Ultraviolet light is used to deactivate the virus, making it harmless, but its odor remains, she said.
“When the dog finds the positive mask, they are taught to sit to signal to the handler that it is a positive sample. When they do alert, they get their favorite toy or treat as a reward,” Mills said. “To them, the entire process is a fun game of hide and seek. They only get rewarded if they alert correctly and since they are so ‘nuts’ for their toy or treat they learn quickly.”
For Huntah, it’s her favorite ball.
The dogs are not being used directly on people but they have often identified the presence of the odor of the virus inside schools and other public buildings, said Jonathan Darling, public information officer for the sheriff’s office.
“For example, the dogs hit on a few spots at Apponequet Regional High School [last week] and a few spots at Norton Middle School,” he said. “We’ve hit on lockers, weight rooms, desks, and other places at schools, police departments, and other buildings.”
When a spot is identified, school officials are notified so the area can be more thoroughly cleaned and disinfected, Darling said. They can also use the information when planning classroom and auditorium uses for students.
Darling said the dogs are being used strictly to examine surfaces, and, while accurate, they aren’t a substitute for a COVID-19 test.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the “principal mode” people contract coronavirus is through exposure to respiratory droplets.
“It is possible for people to be infected through contact with contaminated surfaces or objects (fomites),” the CDC’s website states, “but the risk is generally considered to be low.”
Still, if a dog picks up a scent on a student’s desk, school officials “could try to identify the student or students [that sat there] and could tell the nurse or the parents” and advise testing, Darling said.
The superintendents in each district reached out to the sheriff’s office about the program. Fairhaven Public Schools Superintendent Tara Kohler said it has helped students and teachers “feel more confident in their environment” and know that administrators are exhausting all options so they can attend school safely.
Kohler said one of the dogs detected an odor on a set of lockers recently. After cleaning them, the school notified the parents of the students who use them so they could keep an eye out for possible symptoms.
“It’s only been a couple of weeks with us, but it’s really promising in my opinion,” she said. “It’s an interesting additional mechanism that has the possibility of getting us back to normal, faster.”
Douglas, Huntah’s handler, said the dogs have also been a bright spot for students.
“It’s nice on that side of it too, to put a smile on the kids’ faces,” he said.