Erica Garcia has spent the last several months training dogs to detect COVID-19.
The dogs were taught at FIU’s International Forensic Research Institute (IFRI) to identify the odor produced by metabolic changes in those infected with the virus. Garcia, an environmental studies freshman and Honors College student, was responsible for safely removing the COVID-19 odor sample from its container and placing the sealed sample on a surface for the dogs to detect. The training was conducted in large spaces like auditoriums, labs and libraries.
“I’ve always wanted to do something with scent detection and dogs. I love working with animals,” Garcia said. “I saw this opportunity and said, ‘Let’s see how powerful these dogs can actually be.'”
High proficiency in detection comes with practice, and the dogs can achieve greater than 90 percent accuracy and low false positives after completing the final stages of training.
The canine team consists of a Belgian Malinois named Cobra, a Dutch Shepherd named Betta, and two small rescue dogs, Mac and Hubble.
The training starts in the IFRI lab on an octopus-like wheel with canisters at the ends. The odor sample is randomly placed in one canister and the canines circle the wheel sniffing each one until they detect the right canister.
When the dog detects the odor, it alerts the handler by sitting down next to it. This technique is practiced so when the dogs are searching for the odor on a surface in a big room, the dog will sit down and alert the handler where to clean. After the lab, the dogs move on to practice in big open spaces.
These canines know a thing or two about detecting deadly viruses. Before sniffing out the COVID-19 odor on campus, the dogs were trained to detect the disease odor produced by a specific fungus that destroyed avocado trees in South Florida.
Getting the dogs used to the FIU environment is one of the important tasks Garcia handles to ensure the dogs are comfortable, especially as more students are expected on campus in the summer and fall semesters. Their days include walking around campus, roaming aisle by aisle in the library, and searching classrooms and auditoriums.
“My favorite part has been seeing the dogs grow in their talent,” Garcia said. “It’s mind-blowing seeing their progress in detecting COVID-19 and anything you train them on.”
The detection dog team is the first in the United States to gain certification specific to COVID-19 and earned it just in time to work this year’s Food Network & Cooking Channel South Beach Wine & Food Festival presented by Capital One (SOBEWFF®).
At the start of the pandemic, Garcia was like many others around the world – home, bored and with little to do. To get out of the house, she started searching for safe internships available. That’s when she reached out to her advisor who directed her to the Agroecology program.
Garcia was offered a scholarship through the Innovative Curriculum of Agriculture Training and Career for Hispanics (iCATCH), which granted her an internship to help train COVID-19 detector dogs on campus.
Environmental science is something Garcia has always been interested in—whether it’s wildlife, conservation or agriculture. Working as a volunteer at Zoo Miami during high school reinforced her love for animals and her career in the environment.
In the future, Garcia hopes to work for the USDA in its dog scent detection program.
“I needed to do something, whether it was out in Africa or training dogs here at FIU,” she said. “This internship is a gateway to get into that.”