Big Island Coronavirus Updates

Nose For COVID: ‘Rock Star’ Detection Dog Working With Big Island Schools to Sniff Out Disease

By Nathan Christophel
May 19, 2022, 6:00 PM HST
* Updated May 19, 9:43 PM
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Cobra is tossed her toy as a reward from handler Tamar Elias on Thursday, May 19, after sniffing several masks from students at the Volcano School of Arts and Sciences to see if any have signs of COVID-19. (Photo by Nathan Christophel)

VOLCANO — The Volcano School of Arts and Sciences has a new part-time staff member who not only helps keep people safe from COVID, but also provides hands-on learning and a possible future career path for students and others.

Cobra, an 8-year-old Belgian Malinois dog, from Florida-based Innovative Detection Concepts, has been screening masks for COVID-19 at the Volcano public charter school and two other schools on the Big Island since the end of March. The weekly on-campus screenings at the three schools are part of a curriculum development and citizen science project through the Hawai’i PK-12 Research and Development Consortium.

Cobra (Courtesy photo)

The other participating schools are Innovations Public Charter School in Kailua-Kona and Ka ‘Umeke Kā‘eo Public Charter School in Keaukaha.

The purpose of the pilot project is to show people it is possible to detect COVID with the use of a scent-detection dog and stimulate the use of canine scent detection in Hawai‘i in general for human, plant and animal disease, according to Volcano School of Arts and Sciences Principal Kalima Kinney. It’s also hoped that the project can continue in schools because COVID isn’t going away anytime soon.

“There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle and a lot of ways to put the puzzle together,” Kinney told Big Island Now on Thursday, adding the project is trying to find the best way to put that puzzle together for Hawai‘i.

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Additionally, students are learning about canine scent detection science, detector dog handling and training, emotional intelligence and empathy and animal career opportunities. Kinney said the curriculum being developed through the project ranges from the science behind why a dog can smell better than humans and the biology behind it to the training aspects of scent detection and how Cobra does her job to learning about COVID itself.

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“Students learn better when the curriculum is relevant and meaningful,” she said. “So particularly with science, for example, a lot of the curriculum schools have been accessing has been based out of other places not in Hawai‘i. So a lot of the content, they don’t really relate to. Not only that, but we have a lot of needs here.”

While canine scent detection is obviously a global effort and resource, one of the project’s aims is to promote it in Hawai‘i. Kinney said having Cobra here, doing the scent detection, and the students learning about the science behind it at the same time, plus experiencing a relationship with the dog, really makes learning about it more meaningful.

She said another reason for the project is the social and emotional component of just having a dog on campus to give people a sense of hope and comfort in the face of something as scary as COVID.

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The project is receiving funding from a Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Innovation Award, the Volcano School of Arts and Sciences, Innovative Detection Concepts, Florida nonprofit Redland Ahead Inc., Florida International University, the Akaka Foundation for Tropical Forests, Ka ‘Umeke Kā‘eo PCS, Innovations PCS and Mountain View Elementary School.

One by one on Thursday, May 19, Cobra sniffed masks hanging from hooks in a covered area outside at the Volcano school. She would make two passes down the row of masks, stopping at each only long enough to render a verdict. Fortunately, she sat down at just one mask — indicating the possible presence of COVID — which was only for demonstration purposes and to provide a sample to keep her on task when needed.

Handler Tamar Elias collects masks that were sniffed by Cobra in an attempt to detect an odor associated with COVID infection Thursday at the Volcano School of Arts and Sciences. (Photo by Nathan Christophel)

Otherwise, Cobra did not detect COVID on any of the other masks screened that morning, most of which had been worn by students.

It’s not actually the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 Cobra is detecting with her super canine scent. It’s a particular odor emitted from people who are or have been infected.

“It’s not the smell of the COVID virus, but it is the volatiles — organic compounds — that come out of your lungs or through sweat,” John Mills, president of Innovative Detection Concepts and Cobra’s owner, told Big Island Now on Thursday. He added that the odor can last up to 30-40 days after infection.

There are only four dogs in the United States that are certified to sniff out COVID, all of which have been trained through Innovative Detection Concepts. The accuracy of the exhaled breath method of detection Cobra and the other three dogs were trained in, developed by Florida International University’s International Forensic Research Institute, is 95% or more.

In just 2-3 minutes after wearing a mask, Cobra can detect whether COVID is present now or if a person had it before, Mills said.

Tamar Elias, Cobra’s handler, is a longtime resident of the Volcano area and a volcano scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey. She was granted a leave of absence so she could be part of the project. Now, instead of using instruments and electronic sensors to detect volcanic gases, which also emit odors, she’s using a biological sensor — Cobra — to detect the odor left behind by COVID.

“Dog scent detection is 10,000 to 100,000 times better than human scent detection and they have a unique anatomy and physiology that allows that,” Elias said. “If you look at your dog’s nose, you’ll see there’s some little slits on the sides. The dog breathes through its nostrils the same way we do … but in the dog, rather than the air coming straight back out, they filter that air through the side slits. That allows a dog to continuously detect a scent. So they’re bathing their scent receptors in their nose with this continuous flow.”

Dogs also have 50 times more scent receptors than humans. Elias said if human scent receptors covered an area the size of a postage stamp, a dog’s would cover about the area of an 8.5-by-11-inch sheet of paper.

Cobra started her scent-detection career detecting the Laurel wilt disease that was killing avocado trees in southern Florida. She is also trained to detect rapid ‘ōhi‘a death.

Elias said during Cobra’s work with Florida International University and some of the research projects she’s been involved in, she’s come out at the top of her cohort on accuracy.

“Cobra is exceptionally good at her job,” Elias said. “She’s a rock star of detector dogs.”

Cobra gets some love Thursday from students at the Volcano School of Arts and Sciences. (Photo by Nathan Christophel)

Cobra’s other job is as a post-traumatic stress disorder dog, and those skills also are on display while she’s working with students at each of the participating schools.

“She’s very interactive and works to calm individuals that are a little afraid,” Mills said. “She’ll walk up to them, and just very calmly let them settle down and get up their confidence to be able to pet her. So that’s an added benefit of having a dog that has that capacity.”

The emotional and social aspect of Cobra on campus has been beneficial for students, Elias said. The kids are excited to see and touch Cobra and learn about her. There’s also an additional layer of a feeling of safety, especially after dealing with COVID for so long and many of them losing a lot of in-person instruction.

“So to have this extra tool at their school, that’s helping them feel like they can have an extra layer of protection from COVID because there’s a dog that is actually looking for COVID and is effective at finding COVID,” Elias said.

Cobra’s work also is much less invasive than a COVID test.

“Rather than having something shoved up your nose, you simply hang your mask and the dog sniffs the mask,” Elias said. “So that’s been very good for students.”

Wairimu Kimiti, a fifth-grader at the Volcano school who helps coordinate the students and assists Elias during screenings, told Big Island Now on Thursday that students enjoy watching Cobra at work.

“It’s really fun to see her work because she’s a family dog, so she’s just like a pet, but she also works hard,” Kimiti said. “So it’s cool to see her do different things.”

She said Cobra is “obviously way smarter than we are.”

“She can smell things that we can’t,” Kimiti said. “We’ve seen people smell (the masks) and they have no idea what they’re trying to find. She takes one sniff and she knows, yes or no. And it’s really cool to see how much she knows and how much she learns just by doing things a couple times.”

Cobra even chimed in through Elias, saying she’s had a really amazing time in Hawai‘i, meeting all the students and staff at the different schools.

“She’s really appreciated all the pets and all the attention, and she’s had a good time helping people stay safe,” Elias said.

To keep up with what Cobra is doing and to learn more about her scent-detection job and responsibilities, follow her on Facebook with #cobranosecovid and on Instagram @cobranose1.

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel has more than 20 years of experience in journalism, starting out as a reporter and working his way up to become a copy editor and page designer, most recently at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo.
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