Photos courtesy of CCDC-CBC and Michele Maughan December 02, 2020
Military working dogs training to sniff out coronavirus
Sit. Stay. Detect COVID-19.
Working dogs are trained to perform a wide array of tasks and skills. In addition to patrol and combat capabilities, military working dogs are also masters of detection, aiding military, homeland security and law enforcement officials in finding things like explosives and narcotics.
Now, with the help of TADD — the Training Aid Delivery Device — they’re sniffing out coronavirus.
TADD was developed by Michele Maughan, a University of Delaware College of Agriculture and Natural Resources alumna who now works as a contract research scientist and program manager for the United States Army through Excet, Inc., at the Combat Capabilities Development Command Chemical Biological Center (CCDC-CBC) at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.
“We had a project many years ago that required that we train dogs to detect a hazardous material, but we needed to expose the dogs only to the odor, not the particulate,” Maughan said. “After many iterations, I developed the TADD which is a containment vessel that holds the training aid and allows only the odor to escape, keeping the dogs safe. We now have thousands of these in the field that are helping to train dogs to detect explosives, drugs, human remains and are even used in conservation to detect endangered species.”
At the onset of the COVID-19 global pandemic, Maughan and her team saw the demand for rapid virus detection and set out to determine whether military working dogs could be mobilized as an effective screening tool. To launch a coronavirus scent detection study, Maughan reached out to Dr. Cynthia Otto of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine (Penn Vet) and director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center. Otto now serves as principal investigator of the study and collects COVID-19 samples from patients in the University of Pennsylvania Health System. The samples are loaded into TADDs and given to Tactical Directional Canine Systems owner Pat Nolan, a former Department of Defense dog trainer, who trains nine dogs to detect the virus.
“In the TADD, you have the target, which is the sample from a positive COVID patient and that could be urine, saliva or body odor samples like a t-shirt that has captured sweat,” Maughan said. “You also have a matched sample from a COVID negative patient. Then we add other samples that the dogs have to distinguish between and we call these blanks and distractors. We add all sorts of things that are meant to demonstrate how much the dogs are discriminating amongst different odors.”
Preliminary results are promising. The dogs have been able to detect the proteins and odors associated with positive COVID patients, even when those patients are asymptomatic.
“We actually had the dogs alert on a sample that was presented to them as negative. The trainer was befuddled and called Penn Vet who confirmed that the control was from a COVID negative patient. He trusts the dogs and the dogs are almost never wrong, so he pulled the sample from the TADD,” said Maughan. “We later found out that while that patient had tested negative for the purposes of this study, they had actually previously tested positive. They must have had some lingering metabolites or proteins from the virus associated with their sample and the dogs were still able to register that as COVID.”
The CCDC-CBC provides subject matter expertise to move this project from an experimental proof of concept to an operational capability. Maughan hopes to transition from the study where clinical samples are brought to the dogs to a situation where the dogs can actively identify positive COVID cases in public environments. She envisions working dogs as a critical screening tool to allow schools, businesses and medical centers to remain open throughout the pandemic. Because of their unique and specialized detection capabilities, working dogs could screen individuals as they enter shared spaces and identify positive cases faster than any of our current screening tools like temperature checks or health questionnaires.
The research team is currently seeking funding to continue the study and Maughan sees long-term potential for the expansion of working dog capabilities. “This is not just a proof of concept for COVID; it’s a proof of concept for any biological or respiratory disease that could form an outbreak, whether natural or intentional. We want to come up with validated protocol so that it’s in our repertoire and shared internationally. Similar research is happening now in places like Finland, Germany, France, Chile, Australia, United Arab Emirates and the UK. If there is another coronavirus, flu or even a weaponized pathogen, we can quickly ramp up these dogs or whatever technology ends up becoming a valid detection or screening capability and mobilize that as soon as possible.”
Maughan earned a bachelor’s degree in pre-veterinary medicine, a master’s degree in animal science and a doctorate in animal and food sciences, all from UD. In her current role, she’s able to combine fundamentals learned in each of her degree programs.
“My undergrad and grad school education came together in ways that I would have never imagined,” she said. “I started my postdoc in the U.S. Army’s Edgewood Chemical Biological Center. My doctoral research involved the highly pathogenic avian influenza virus in Dr. Calvin Keeler’s lab, so it was a really good match for working with biodefense agents and pathogens of consequence.”
When the Chemical Biological Center sought scientists to work with military working dogs, Maughan enthusiastically volunteered for a chance to incorporate her pre-veterinary background. “Military working dogs are very serious, sometimes terrifying dogs. I immediately raised my hand. Not only am I not afraid, but I knew I would love to do this. Now my work is focused on olfactory sciences, which actually incorporates a lot of different components and skills — all gained at UD — that came together really well.”
Individuals with a recent or upcoming coronavirus test result may volunteer to participate in this working dog study by completing this eligibility survey.