Dogs and COVID Preventions : Short Wave A Massachusetts elementary school welcomes "Huntah," the COVID-sniffing dog. Scientist-in-residence Regina Barber talks with NPR science reporter Ari Daniel about how a specialized K-9 unit is helping keep kids in classrooms.

For more of Ari's reporting, check out "Dogs trained to sniff out COVID in schools are getting a lot of love for their efforts."

You can follow Regina on Twitter @ScienceRegina and Ari on Instagram @mesoplodon_. Email Short Wave at ShortWave@NPR.org.

'Smell Ya Later, COVID!' How Dogs Are Helping Schools Stay COVID-free

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EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: You're listening to SHORT WAVE...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KWONG: ...From NPR.

REGINA BARBER, HOST:

Hey, SHORT WAVErs, Regina Barber here. And for many of us, the school year is finally wrapping up. It has been a year. The dips and surges of the COVID-19 pandemic have kept us in and out of school and work. What about in your house, Ari?

ARI DANIEL, BYLINE: Same. Thankfully, for everyone here in my home, more in than out.

BARBER: That's Ari Daniel, science reporter extraordinaire.

DANIEL: Hey there, Regina, host extraordinaire. A lot of schools have managed to stay open this year using all kinds of strategies, and I want to talk to you about one community near me that relied on a special program to help keep its classrooms from closing.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Hi, Dad.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: See you, Sophie (ph).

DANIEL: I visited Freetown Elementary School in southeastern Massachusetts, and there are two police cruisers just outside, bouncing feverishly on their shocks.

PAUL DOUGLAS: You might think I had, like, an elephant in the back or something - you know what I mean? - but it's a 56-pound lab.

BARBER: Whoa, that's a big dog.

DANIEL: Yes. Captain Paul Douglas runs Bristol County's K-9 unit, and Huntah is that pup.

BARBER: Hence the bouncing - but do you mean Hunter, or...

DANIEL: No.

BARBER: Wait...

DANIEL: No, I mean Huntah. It's like Hunter, but pronounced with a Boston accent, Regina - Huntah.

BARBER: Got it.

DANIEL: So she's almost 2. She's a black lab, and she is raring to work.

Hi, Hunter (ph). Whoa, hi, hi.

DOUGLAS: No, don't do the...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG PANTING)

BARBER: So why was this dog at the school?

DANIEL: Well, canine units are best known for sniffing out firearms or narcotics, but Huntah here only has nose for COVID.

BARBER: That is awesome. So today on the show, COVID-sniffing pups in schools and where the whole idea came from. You're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

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BARBER: OK, Ari, so you were at Freetown Elementary in Massachusetts.

DANIEL: Yes. And the principal, Michael Ward, escorts us into the building. He says that the coronavirus turned this year into a real roller coaster in terms of student attendance.

MICHAEL WARD: You can't educate an empty chair, right? So you want kids in school all the time.

DANIEL: He's relied on masking and testing and also Huntah. She's part of a program that's training dogs to detect COVID on surfaces in schools like this one. Now, the risk of getting infected with COVID by touching a surface is low, but it's not zero.

BARBER: Right, COVID is mostly spread through the air. But with a lot of these kids in close quarters every day, it makes sense that you'd want to take all kinds of precautions.

DANIEL: Exactly.

WARD: We could count on a dog coming on in, and it gives another layer of sense of relief for staff, for students, for myself, and obviously the community at large.

DANIEL: So Principal Ward drops us off at this classroom, and Captain Paul Douglas takes me and Huntah into the room.

DOUGLAS: Hi friends. Remember - the dog is working, just like you.

DANIEL: The students are working at their various math stations.

DOUGLAS: You can say hello to the dog. But first, let's have the dog do its job, OK?

BARBER: So what does this look like - the dog at work?

DANIEL: Huntah quickly starts sniffing the garbage can and then moves on to bookbags and desks.

So you're just walking around the classroom?

DOUGLAS: Yep. So if the dog indicates on COVID - whether it's on a surface, whether it's on a backpack, whether it's on a jacket - the dog will sit. So then what we'll do is we'll tell the administration of the school, and they'll spray it down.

DANIEL: The superintendent is someone named Richard Medeiros. He told me that, across the district, during COVID peaks throughout the school year, Huntah and her canine coworker, Duke, were detecting the virus pretty regularly.

RICHARD MEDEIROS: We would then go back through our health professionals, through our administration, identify the classroom, identify the space, who was in that location. We would notify parents and families. Obviously, there was a consent piece.

BARBER: So how does this dog communicate it found something? Like, how do they tell the officers, hey, I found COVID over here?

DANIEL: Well, there's an interesting example of that, Regina. Apparently, early on, dogs kept sitting near those air filters in the school that a lot of places are using to help clean the air in enclosed spaces. The filters, it turns out, were holding onto more COVID residue - viral junk, basically - than they'd realized. That doesn't mean the virus was active, necessarily, but that led to the staff changing the filters more regularly.

MEDEIROS: And so the dogs picked that up. We would not have picked that up on our own.

BARBER: So dogs can find all kinds of scents, but how did this COVID-sniffing idea come about?

DANIEL: It's a great story. It starts two decades back, when a beetle that was likely a stowaway aboard a ship from overseas arrived near Savannah, Ga. And that stowaway had a stowaway - a fungus. I talked to forensic biologist Julian Mendel about it.

JULIAN MENDEL: It led to over 500 million wild trees destroyed, as well as one-third of the avocado industry wiped out here in south Florida.

BARBER: That's actually really devastating. I also - I mean, I love avocados, too. So that's horrifying.

DANIEL: Yes, both for avocado lovers and for the farmers. Mendel is with Florida International University. As a grad student, he pondered how to detect the fungus before the trees got sick. He figured it was the perfect task for a dog.

MENDEL: So we've utilized canine science for ages to do the detection of many things, such as missing people, drugs or explosives.

DANIEL: Just like you said, Regina, they can sniff out all sorts of things. And dogs are also used in medicine to detect certain cancers or even imminent seizures.

BARBER: Wow.

DANIEL: For Mendel, training them to detect the fungus was a logical next scent.

BARBER: Ha. Clever. So let me guess - it worked.

DANIEL: Yes, it did. Some farmers even adopted the technique to know where to apply fungicide to their trees. After the work with the avocado trees, Hawaii got in touch to help them track down another fungus that was rapidly killing these iconic Hawaiian trees called Ohia, and the dogs managed to detect it successfully. Then, in early 2020, COVID comes ashore.

MENDEL: We immediately knew that we could take that approach to get the canines to detect this particular human disease.

BARBER: That's really awesome. So what was the training like?

DANIEL: Well, Mendel and his colleague, forensic biologist DeEtta Mills, gathered masks used by patients with COVID to train the dogs.

DEETTA MILLS: All of the immune responses to fight off this virus combines to make a unique scent that we see as people breathe out that we can capture on the masks.

DANIEL: After a month of training, the dogs were accurately detecting COVID more than 96% of the time. Other...

BARBER: That's amazing.

DANIEL: It really is incredible - their ability to sniff out these very subtle aromas. Other research groups around the globe have confirmed it and made similar findings. There's a group in Finland that trained four canines using skin samples collected from people at the Helsinki Airport. And, Regina, get this - there was a team in France that worked with dogs that successfully identified COVID in sweat samples collected from people's armpits.

BARBER: I love that story. At least they're sniffing - I just imagine dogs sniffing armpits, but it's a better place than where they usually sniff, so (laughter)...

DANIEL: Well, if it makes you feel any better, they weren't actually going into the armpits.

BARBER: Right.

DANIEL: They had the participants place two sterile surgical compresses under their arms for 2 minutes.

BARBER: Wow.

DANIEL: So anyway, the dogs in Florida went on to screen the masks of American Airlines employees returning to work. They helped reopen the Miami Wine and Food Festival by sniffing the masks of a lot of the people that were in line waiting to get in.

BARBER: Wow.

DANIEL: If the dog smelled COVID on the mask, that person would then be asked to step out of line to take a rapid test.

BARBER: That's great. That's like, instant.

DANIEL: Instant - exactly. And that's part of the advantage - is you can just scan very quickly lots of masks or surfaces.

BARBER: Yeah.

DANIEL: So when the sheriff of Bristol County in southeastern Massachusetts caught wind of the dogs' success, he decided to bring the program to his K-9 unit, and the superintendent leapt at the opportunity to screen the county's schools starting last September, including Freetown Elementary.

BARBER: Right. And that makes me think of Huntah sniffing around the classroom. Did she actually find any COVID?

DANIEL: I'll let Captain Douglas deliver the verdict.

DOUGLAS: This room's clear. She didn't alert to any presence of COVID, and now we're allowing the kids to say hello to Huntah.

Go ahead, you can pet her.

BARBER: It's so cute.

DANIEL: Yeah. The kids adore Huntah, that wicked-smaht (ph) COVID detectah (ph).

BARBER: (Laughter).

DANIEL: Now, this particular school has a pretty clean track record. The principal told me that the dogs only detected it one time on a kid's backpack, and it's possible it was a false positive. But the dogs were finding it regularly earlier this year at other schools, especially during COVID surges. Superintendent Medeiros thinks this program's made a real difference.

MEDEIROS: There's a correlation between those instances where we were able to identify a desk in our location, bring a student down, have them tested and have them test positive. It's no doubt in my mind that it helped us and allowed us to remain open, keep students in school safely.

BARBER: So are other schools doing this as well? Like, are there COVID-sniffing dogs across the country?

DANIEL: You know, Regina, it really hasn't been that widely adopted yet. It takes work to train the animals and visit a place often enough to make a difference. But when it's used in concert with other strategies, like masking and social distancing, it's one more tool to add to a school's COVID-prevention arsenal. And there is an added benefit for some of the students. Huntah is also a certified therapy dog. And the day I was at the school, there was this incident at recess, and one of the kids had a strong reaction and got pretty upset.

BARBER: Oh, no.

DANIEL: The nurse was called to help. And then Captain Douglas happened by in the hallway, COVID scans complete, and the nurse flagged him down so the student could walk and pet Huntah. They ended up outside...

DOUGLAS: He needed...

DANIEL: ...And the student recovered.

DOUGLAS: ...A little bit of Huntah, right, buddy? I'm glad that Huntah was able to make you smile and - makes you feel good at the end of the day when you go home - you know? - that you're...

BARBER: Oh, that's so sweet.

DOUGLAS: ...Able to accomplish something. And that meant more to me than anything, so.

DANIEL: Douglas gave the student an iron-on K-9 unit patch.

BARBER: Aw.

DANIEL: And the kid held onto it and walked back into the building calm and safe.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BARBER: Thank you so much, Ari, for bringing us this story. And, as a parent myself, with a couple other parents on the SHORT WAVE team, we want to say a huge thanks to all the school districts, teachers, superintendents and staff who worked so hard to keep our kids in classrooms this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BARBER: This story was edited by Gabriel Spitzer and Gisele Grayson, who is our senior supervising editor. Thomas Lu produced the episode. Rachel Carlson checked the facts. I'm Regina Barber. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DANIEL: Well, the dog's name is actually Huntah. It's not Hunter.

BARBER: It's not Hunter?

DANIEL: Yeah.

BARBER: Oh, I thought it was (laughter) legit the accent. OK, it's Huntah. OK.

DANIEL: Yeah, I'll say Huntah, and then you can be like, you mean Hunter? And I'll be like...

(LAUGHTER)

BARBER: I know.

DANIEL: ...Yeah - no. Yeah, OK.

BARBER: (Laughter).

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