They Did It!

close up of dog nose
The “big gun” to combat COVID-19 spread

The Finnish dogs win!

In late September, Finland launched a pilot program using dogs to detect travelers carrying COVID-19 at the Helsinki airport!

Of course, we can’t go there right now, so we cannot see the dogs in action (yet).

Several organizations in the U.S. are also training COVID-sniffing dogs, but the Finns got there first.

The dogs will sniff samples voluntarily provided by arriving airline passengers, and the passengers and dogs will have no contact. This is a good model, since some people are afraid of — or allergic to — dogs.

The dogs are extremely accurate, and can even detect COVID-19 before the standard testing can: Anna Hielm-Björkman, one of the researchers, said that the dogs may be better at spotting coronavirus infections than PCR and antibody tests. They “can also find [people] that are not yet PCR positive but will become PCR positive within a week,” she said.

Dogs’ noses are truly amazing, and we’ve barely scratched the surface of what they can do!


Getting to Know You …

Cali’s tail never stops wagging as she follows her nose.

A recent column in the Whole Dog Journal had these two sentences, part of a longer description of a coonhound learning to trust humans (the column is well worth a read; in fact, nearly everything in WDJ is worth reading):

The only clue we had that she actually did like attention was that if you sat in her presence, she would come and stand very close to you; she liked to put her face very near your face – a quite uncomfortable sensation with a dog who has no expression, and isn’t wagging her tail or trying to lick you. She would just approach, stand very close, and hold very still – odd.

This caught my attention because Cali does the same thing. Well, Cali has a very expressive face and is nearly always wagging her tail, sometimes even in her sleep. But the ‘putting her nose right next to people’s mouths’ part is the same.

I think that dogs do this to learn about people. They pick up a lot of information from smells, far more than whether we’re overdue for a dose of mouthwash. They learn about other dogs that way, both in person and by sniffing the ground.

Cali often does this breathing exercise while also giving the person a hug (she gives great hugs), possibly begging for a treat (or sniffing the person’s plate), or nuzzling the person. But often, she just inhales … soaking in the essence of her friend. And almost everyone is her friend — or would be if she could only meet them!

I’m not sure whether Cali is doing this more, as well as sniffing the ground more carefully and thoroughly since we started doing scent work classes or I am just noticing it more. But she does seem to be very attuned to her nose lately. When we played ball in the snow this morning, though, I noticed that she doesn’t seem to be able to detect the scent as easily. She ran right past her ball several times, sniffing the air, and did not seem to know it was there. She’s generally very good at finding it with her nose.

Of course, it could just be that she loves running around in the snow



Smell Walks

Jana sniffs at a fascinating odor

I’m reading Alexandra Horowitz’s new book, Being a Dog. I’ve just started it, so the review is a ways off. But it’s good. It focuses on smell. How it feels to live your life, as dogs do, in a world dominated by smell. I’ve read a lot of her work — she’s the researcher who debunked the “guilty dog” look, for example — as well as just about anything else about dogs that I can get my hands on.

I know, from listening to the “Fresh Air” podcast where Terry Gross interviewed Horowitz (it’s called “From Fire Hydrants to Rescue Work, Dogs Perceive the World Through Smell”) that dogs don’t necessarily categorize smells as “good” and “bad.” They just are. This seems evident when we think about the things that dogs spend the most time sniffing … but I digress.

Horowitz describes something that she calls “smell walks.” And, while I have never seen or heard such a specific description of a “smell walk,” I have actually engaged in something similar with my dogs for years. The idea is that the walk is the dog’s time to catch up on the important news of the world. Dogs do this by sniffing.

In Jana’s case, this requires sniffing every blade of grass, twig, stone, or millimeter of sidewalk. These are very slow walks. In fact, they are not walks so much as “stand here awhile, move a foot or so, and stand there awhile, then repeat”s. But that is kind of a mouthful, so we’ve stuck to the wishful shorthand of “walks.” My version has been to let the girls (Jana) sniff on the way to the park and at the park, then actually walk on the way home. I’ve had mixed success with this approach. Jana has a very strong and effective set of brakes.

But now I feel guilty even about that (the “walking on the way home” part). I’m not far enough into the book to know whether all walks have to be smell walks or just one a day, or what. I also don’t know whether there is ever justification for breaking the rules. Because, you see, what I do know is that pulling the dog away from what she is sniffing is not allowed on smell walks.

Another missing piece of information (because Terry Gross didn’t ask) is this: When the dog progresses from smelling to tasting, has the dog broken the rules? And if so, is pulling her away and reprimanding her permitted? If not, how do we keep her from eating really sickening things (in both the “I find it gross” and “it will make her sick” senses of the word)?

Horowitz does not have a golden retriever or a Lab, so she might not have this problem. Still, I would love to hear her answer. I am hoping to find it in the book.

In any case, the idea is to let the dog sniff to her heart’s content. With this approach, Jana and I might never actually get across the parking lot to the sidewalk ever again. I don’t follow this rule. Horowitz warns of dire consequences: Pulling dogs away from smell-rich environments might make them lose their predisposition to smell. This is why, she theorizes in the interview, dogs started attending to pointing and other gestures. I have lots of thoughts on that (based on lots of research) but suffice it to say that Jana, the heavy-duty sniffer, does really well with gestures and pointing. And Jana has survived 13 years of being pulling contests, where her brakes often defeat my efforts to separate her from whatever she is sniffing. Cali, whose nose just might be broken, never got the memo that said dogs, even very young puppies, attend to human gestures, follow pointing, and attribute some significance to the way the human is facing, pointing and gesturing, especially when all three match up. Maybe Cali is secretly a wolf. Or a chimpanzee. They don’t follow gestures either.

The first chapters of Horowitz’s book talk about how delightfully smelly humans are and how dog noses work. It also describes how dogs’ self-awareness is defined: by their scent, of course. I’m really enjoying the book, even if it has triggered enormous guilt about the walks. I’ll have to keep reading to see if and when I am allowed to take the dogs on what Jana calls “forced marches” — no-sniff walks with the goal of exercise or getting somewhere (or both). At least Cali enjoys those!