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Are K9s the key to reopening large events amid the COVID pandemic?

COVID K9, the new breed of first responders. As the pandemic continues people who operate things like sporting events, concerts, and museums are eager to re-open to crowds. But testing people in the crowd for Covid remains an issue… and a dog trainer not far from Jacksonville may have found a work around.
COVID K9, the new breed of first responders. As the pandemic continues people who operate things like sporting events, concerts, and museums are eager to re-open to crowds. But testing people in the crowd for Covid remains an issue… and a dog trainer not far from Jacksonville may have found a work around.

MADISON, Fla. – As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, businesses who need large groups of people to operate -- sporting events, concerts, museums -- are eager to find a safe way to reopen. A dog trainer not far from Jacksonville may have found an answer to how to host people safely -- without the risk of something becoming a superspreader event.

Jeff Minder said he’s developed a technique at Top Tier K9 to train dogs to sniff out the COVID-19 virus.

“Our dogs find it in symptomatic and asymptomatic human beings. (They) can find it on surfaces and contained in objects,” Minder said. “Our dogs can find COVID-19 through your skin, through your muscle, into your bloodstream, and they can tell you if the COVID virus is in your bloodstream. We were the first to ever do it.”

Minder said the virus is much smaller and more difficult to detect than something like narcotics, which many police dogs are trained to detect. He also said this is similar to dogs trained to sniff out cancer but involves even smaller molecules.

“Cancer on a human cell is like a basketball. And the virus is like a BB,” said Minder, who claims his dogs can detect COVID-19 with 96% accuracy.

When News4Jax visited the Top Tier K9 facility in Madison -- about halfway between Live Oak and Montecillo -- last month, Minder said he had eight dogs fully trained to detect COVID and roughly 70 dogs in training. Minder said his training takes about eight weeks but most of that involves training the human who will handle the dog. He said a customer sends an employee to his facility to spend time with the dog and learn how to work with them to detect COVID.

Dogs train to sniff out COVID-19 in people. (WJXT/Chris O'Rourke)

Minder said potential customers contact him every few minutes.

“Sports arenas are places they’re being used. We’ve got theme parks that are checking people to open (the) economy up,” Minder said. “We’ve got hotels, bars, restaurants -- those types of venues. Art museums are launching.”

“I’m hearing a need for fast, immediate testing for large crowds. And we’re really trying to get dogs into the health care industry to free up the health care workers,” said Julie Madison, who Minder recently hired to help deal with the influx of potential customers to his business.

While Minder said the dogs can walk up on a person and sniff out the virus, he said that’s less reliable than if each person in a crowd is given a quick DNA swab in the mouth and the dog can detect on the saliva.

While Minder stands by his dogs’ abilities, scientists aren’t totally sold. A recent article in Nature.com noted that “most of these findings have not yet been peer-reviewed or published.”

“Canines seem to detect coronavirus infections with remarkable accuracy, but researchers say large-scale studies are needed before the approach is scaled up,” Nature.com wrote.

The article cited one study by an organization called Volk’s, where the tested dogs were able to identify only 83% of positive cases and 96% of negative samples.

Minder is not able to release the names of any of his customers until they agree to publicize that they are using the dogs. One organization that has announced it is using COVID detecting dogs is the Miami Heat, but Minder declined to say if that is one of his customers, citing that he keeps his customers confidential.

If you’re wondering how much one of these dogs cost, they’re not cheap. To purchase one dog from Minder’s business costs $100,000. If you only want to rent the dog, it’s $5,000 per month.

While Minder believes he’s the only private company training dogs to sniff out COVID-19, News4Jax learned that several universities are doing it, including Florida International University.

Minder joined us on The Morning Show on Wednesday to talk more about the program. He said he thinks the dogs might be the answer to reopening places that are currently closed or restricted.

“Within the next eight weeks, we will have a bunch of them out at theme parks, museums, mining operations, factories overseas. You’re going to see dogs as part of everything moving forward in two weeks -- and the next pandemic these guys will be on the new virus,” Minder said. “So they will be able to find the virus months before the laboratories have snap tests or the nasal tests to test for the virus, the dogs will be able to flatten that pandemic very quickly.”

Watch Minder’s full interview below:

A new breed of first responders in this pandemic are dogs that are specifically trained to sniff out COVID-19. Some say that this could be the way to people back together safely for events like concerts and sports games. Owner of Top Tier K-9, Jeff Minder joins us to talk about this.
A new breed of first responders in this pandemic are dogs that are specifically trained to sniff out COVID-19. Some say that this could be the way to people back together safely for events like concerts and sports games. Owner of Top Tier K-9, Jeff Minder joins us to talk about this.

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Specializes in Clay County issues, general assignment reporting and stories off the beaten path and anchors weekend evening newscasts.