by Michelle Chernicoff
Take a deep breath. Notice the odors in the air, the smell of the floor cleaner, the leftover bacon from breakfast, the avocado tree outside dying from a killer fungus. Can’t catch a whiff of that last one? A trained detection dog could zero in on a single infected tree in an avocado orchard in a matter of minutes, alerting farmers and saving the crop before widespread disease sets in.
“A basic principle of forensic science is ‘every contact leaves a trace,’” says Kenneth G. Furton, FIU provost and executive vice president who happens also to be a chemistry professor. In the case of dogs, the trace they hone in on is scent.
Odors are composed of one or many volatile organic compounds and are a primary focus of the detection dog and certification program within FIU's Global Forensic and Justice Center (GFJC). The program is a leader in research and standardization within the field.
Furton began research in the area in 1993 and, along with others, has identified characteristic odors for locating people and human remains, drugs, currency, accelerants, explosives, invasive species, fungi and, most recently, COVID-19.
“When the pandemic hit, we already knew how it could be done, but the key issues were how safely, quickly and effectively we could train and deploy dogs for this application,” Furton explains.
In 2020, GFJC researchers worked with seasoned detection canines to introduce them to a new odor: COVID-19. They used face masks from Baptist Health hospital patients who had tested positive to train the dogs to identify the scent on humans as well as surfaces. In a matter of weeks, the pilot program demonstrated the ability of dogs to detect COVID accurately. Four canines were trained and demonstrated the ability to detect the virus with the same accuracy, or better, as a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) COVID-19 test.
Canines are known for their sharp noses, but why exactly are they so good at this kind of work? “Due to their superior sense of smell and unique olfactory anatomy, a canine’s ability to detect specific odorants can reach very low or trace levels, with a sensitivity on par or even surpassing some electronic sensors or instrumentation,” says Janet M. Crespo-Cajigas, a student in the chemisty doctoral program.
Adds Vidia Gokool, a Ph.D. candidate who works in Furton's lab and is developing software algorithms to match odor profiles from different substances: “Within the canine sciences, the dogs themselves are referred to as detectors or sensors. Whether you are working with a service animal that alerts to low glucose levels or a police canine trained to locate illicit substances, both canines are acting as sensors picking out the unique scent they trained on and communicating its presence to the humans around them.”
The South Beach Wine and Food Festival was the first major event to put the canines' COVID-detection skills to work. Then a pilot program at an employee entrance at Miami International Airport allowed the researchers to implement the canines in a real-world, long-term application. The dogs have shown an average accuracy rate of 97.5 percent in published, peer-reviewed, double-blind trials.
Historically, detection canines were trained without science-backed practices. “Since I started in this research, the field has come a long way, driven by scientists like Dr. Furton,” says Lauryn E. DeGreeff, an associate professor of chemistry. “Now many organizations have adopted science-based approaches to detection training. What really inspires me to continue this field of research is the number of questions that still need to be addressed and to continue to conduct research that directly aids those handlers in the field.”
And the developments coming out of FIU have certainly done that. Furton, for example, developed a system that allows trainers to quickly assess a canine’s ability and thresholds. DeGreeff has conducted research that led to the invention of a device that trains dogs by delivering mimics of homemade explosives commonly used by terrorists.
“The most exciting aspect of canine detection work is that we don’t know the bounds of their abilities and applications,” Gokool says. “Just two years ago we didn’t have a need for COVID-19 detection canines, but now we have trained and effectively deployed canines in many different venues and across the country. When the scientific community is tasked with a new question of how to detect and locate a new substance, more times than not, the fastest and most effective answer is a well-trained canine.”