Angela Rivas/Staff Writer
COVID-19 sniffing canines are the newest addition to the FIU family, adding an extra layer of protection to welcome students back to campus.
Now, after months of training, the team has become the one of the first canines to gain COVID-19 certification and work events such as this year’s South Beach Wine and Food Festival.
In fall of 2020 the International Forensic Research Institute at FIU began training four dogs: Cobra, a Belligian Malinois, One Betta, a Dutch Shepherd, Mac, a small Terrier mix and Hubble, a Border Collie mix to detect the odor of the virus on surfaces.
Training aids containing an inactive virus strain, which is no longer infectious but still has the same odor profile, was added around classrooms and offices at Modesto Maidique Campus, according to Dr.DeEtta Mills, director of the IFRI.
The dogs alert their handler when they detect the odor by sitting down near the training aid.
After nine months of training, the team became COVID-19 certified in May at MMC campus.
The certification is done by independent evaluators from the Scientific Working Group and Orthogonal detector Guidelines, this group is overseen by IFRI. In addition, this committee sets guidelines to achieve a successful canine team and has two FIU members on the board, one being FIU Provost Kenneth Furton.
Certification of any detector dogs ensures that the canines can in fact detect said odor and that the best practices are being used, said Mills.
“For the certification, it’s a double blind study because no handler knows where the odor is, nor the dog of course,” said Kelley Hall, canine handler, when explaining the certification process. “They go through, find the odor, sit at the canister and they need to have a 90% correct rate.”
Hall has been working with the canine team for seven years, starting out as a caretaker, but for the past year and half she has worked closely with One Betta.
Being her personal handler, Hall describes One Betta as very sweet and hyper.
Kelley Hall and One Betta are working to discover the target odor that has been hidden in classrooms and libraries/photo courtesy of FIU Flickr
The canine team received a 100% passing rate at the test and all four dogs plus their respective handlers became certified, said Hall.
As a result of the certification, the team was asked to work the South Beach Wine and Food Festival May of this year.
“We were asked to come on site to support the festival right after they were certified and we had two dogs from our organization, One Betta and Cobra,” said Mills.
Both dogs were placed in areas near attendees to sniff them as they entered to detect any COVID-19 odor.
The dogs had to adapt from training to detect the odor on surfaces, to now people.
“It was a very quick training experience for them [dogs], to in a few days to switch to people,” said Mills also describing how handlers held the training aid in their hands or back pocket, as opposed to being hidden around classrooms.
According to Julian Mendel, assistant director of the IFRI, the original plan was to have people present their mask for the dogs to sniff them, but the state of Florida removed their mask mandate on May 3 for outdoors before the event date on May 20.
“We decided to have them sniff the people themselves and it was the smoothest way to operate with a big group of people,” said Mendel.
The dogs detected one person with COVID-19 odor and was asked to be removed from the area, according to Mills. The person later told the team she was recovering from the virus, and presented a negative COVID test before attending.
Mendel explains how this detection has led the team to a new research question:
How long after you test negative and no longer viral does it take for your metabolism to normalize back to a healthy state smell?
This key information provided by the festival will lead to new studies by the team, said Mendel.
But this festival is only the beginning for the canine team as they are set to work on new projects and possibly be seen on campus soon.
“We have a request currently that might have the dogs working at Miami International Airport screening employees as they come into the terminal,” said Mendel, explaining their next project.
In a year and a half of research, the dogs have had significant breakthroughs and have proven to be an extra safeguard in place to help keep the spread of the virus low.
“The reason why we do the research in the forensic department at FIU is to do things that have practical applications in the real world, we want to help,” said Mendel explaining what this research means to him. “To see this happen in the year and a half of research, to see the dogs working is really fulfilling.”