CRF trains dogs to find explosives, sniff mushrooms and detect COVID | News from the FIU

by Michelle Chernicoff

Breathe deeply. Notice the smells in the air, the smell of floor cleaner, the leftover bacon from breakfast, the avocado tree outside dying from a killer fungus. Can’t smell a whiff of the latter? A trained detection dog could focus on a single infected tree in an avocado orchard within minutes, alerting farmers and saving the harvest before the disease took hold.

“A basic principle of forensic science is:” every contact leaves a trace,Says Kenneth G. Furton, provost and executive vice president of the CRF, who is also a professor of chemistry. In the case of dogs, the trace they focus on is smell.

Odors are made up of one or more volatile organic compounds and are at the heart of the dog detection and certification program within the Global Forensic and Justice Center (GFJC) of the CRF. The program is a leader in research and standardization in the field.

Furton began researching the field in 1993 and, along with others, identified characteristic smells to locate people and human remains, drugs, currency, accelerators, explosives, invasive species, fungi and , most recently, COVID-19.

“When the pandemic hit, we already knew How? ‘Or’ What it could be done, but the key issues were how we could train and deploy dogs safely, quickly and efficiently for this application, ”says Furton.

In 2020, researchers from the GFJC worked with seasoned detector dogs to introduce them to a new scent: COVID-19. They used face masks from patients at Baptist Health Hospital who had tested positive to train the dogs to identify the scent on humans as well as on surfaces. Within weeks, the pilot program demonstrated the ability of dogs to accurately detect COVID. Four dogs were trained and demonstrated their ability to detect the virus with the same, or better, accuracy than a COVID-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test.

Dogs are known for their pointy noses, but Why are they really that good at this kind of work? “Due to their superior sense of smell and unique olfactory anatomy, a dog’s ability to detect specific scents can reach very low levels or in trace amounts, with comparable sensitivity or even surpassing certain sensors or instruments. electronics “, explains Janet M. Crespo-Cajigas, a student in the doctoral program in chemistry.

Add Vidia Gokool, a PhD candidate who works in Furton’s lab and develops software algorithms to match the odor profiles of different substances: “In canine science, dogs themselves are called detectors or sensors. Whether you are working with a service animal that alerts for low glucose levels or a police dog trained to locate illegal substances, both dogs act as sensors to detect the unique scent they trained on and communicate its presence to the humans around them.

The South Beach Wine and Food Festival was the first major event to harness the COVID detection skills of dogs. Next, a pilot program at the employee entrance at Miami International Airport allowed researchers to implement the dogs into real, long-term application. Dogs showed an average accuracy rate of 97.5% in published, peer-reviewed, double-blind trials.

Historically, detection dogs were trained without scientific practice. “Since I started this research, the field has come a long way, led by scientists like Dr. Furton,” says Lauryn E. DeGreeff, associate professor of chemistry. “Now, many organizations have taken scientific approaches to detection training. What really inspires me to continue this area of ​​research is the number of questions that still need to be addressed and to continue to conduct research that directly helps these manipulators in the field.

And developments from the FIU have certainly done so. Furton, for example, has developed a system that allows trainers to quickly assess a dog’s abilities and thresholds. DeGreeff conducted research that led to the invention of a device that trains dogs by mimicking homemade explosives commonly used by terrorists.

“The most exciting aspect of canine detection work is that we don’t know the limits of their capabilities and applications,” says Gokool. “Just two years ago we didn’t need COVID-19 detection dogs, but now we have effectively trained and deployed dogs in many different locations and across the country. When the scientific community is charged with a new question about how to detect and locate a new substance, most of the time the fastest and most effective answer is a well-trained dog.

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