MIAMI, Fla. — One dog is good, but this is One Betta.
“She got her name because she was the second dog they purchased on that day and he said, ‘she's one better,’ and so now we call her One Betta,” said her handler, Kelley Hall. “She's very, very sweet. She is a fantastic dog.”
One Betta isn’t any ordinary dog. She patrols the campus of Florida International University in Miami, on the hunt for COVID-19.
“It's exciting for me and for her,” Hall said.
One Betta is part of a program at FIU’s International Forensic Research Institute, which is training dogs to sniff out COVID-19. Dr. Ken Furton founded the institute and is the university’s provost.
“We'd been doing research with detector dogs for over 25 years and starting with drug dogs and training them on novel drugs,” Dr. Furton said. “And so, it was natural for us to think about training them on the novel coronavirus.”
The dogs are trained to find the scent of COVID-19 by using discarded personal protective equipment from a nearby hospital, including PPE worn by patients diagnosed with the virus, which leaves a unique scent.
“We confirmed in the lab that the odor was there and then we train the dogs using negative controls and positive controls, so that the dogs would find the masks worn by people who have COVID-19,” he said.
So, how accurate are the dogs?
“With the dogs that we've tested so far, the accuracy is over 90%,” Dr. Furton said.
One Betta, along with three other dogs, completed the training and are now used around the university’s more than 340-acre campus, with nearly 58,000 students. When she smells the presence of COVID-19, she signals to her handler.
“When she finds it, she gives me a good sit. I reward her with this,” Hall said, holding up a small red toy. “And that's it.”
Right now, the university is holding some classes remotely, while others are being held in-person, on campus. The idea behind the COVID-sniffing dogs is not just to ensure the health and safety of students, faculty and staff, but also to inspire confidence in being there.
“The dogs are able to actually search large areas and then locate if there's any COVID-19 odor or virus present and then we do a deep cleaning in that classroom or in a seating area, perhaps that students or faculty or staff would be sitting in,” Dr. Furton said.
Beyond the campus, some agencies and companies are expressing interest in the program. Now, more dogs are getting trained to be deployed to other places. As for One Betta, she’s still on patrol at FIU.
“She's hardworking,” Hall said, “always willing to give 100%.”
It’s a day’s work that’s all in a dog’s day.