DARTMOUTH — The Bristol County Sheriff's Office is the first law enforcement agency in the country to have canine units trained to detect COVID-19, an office spokesperson announced today.

Sheriff's Office spokesperson Jonathan Darling stated that two new canine teams trained in COVID detection have been added to the agency: Capt. Paul Douglas and partner Huntah, and Officer Theodore Santos and partner Duke.

Huntah (think Hunter with a Boston accent) is a female black lab and Duke is a male golden lab/retriever mix.

They are both nine months old and are half-siblings, born just two weeks apart with the same father.

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Most Sheriff's Office K-9 units are trained to detect dangerous drugs like heroin and fentanyl, firearms, ammunition, and explosives, and even missing or distressed people.

Now, these two dogs can also detect COVID-19 through its unique odor.

They can also detect advanced COVID variants like the rapidly spreading Delta variant, according to the Sheriff's Office.

But the dogs are not a substitute for a COVID test.

“It’s best to think of it as a decontamination tool,” said Douglas. “The dogs can detect the COVID odor on a counter or table if it was recently touched by a COVID-positive individual, or even detect the odor on a tissue used by someone with COVID.”

The program was developed by Florida International University’s International Forensic Research Institute, adapted from an earlier program that trained dogs to find fungus in crops.

FIU officials sanitized medical masks worn by COVID-positive patients with ultraviolet radiation, which deactivates the virus but leaves its scent, for use in training.

The university currently uses canines for COVID detection on its Florida campus.

The Sheriff’s Office is working with the New Bedford Fire Department and local EMS providers to get masks worn by local COVID patients for future training aids.

“Bristol County and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts have come so far since the pandemic started last year,” said Sheriff Thomas Hodgson. “We’ve made so much progress, and our new COVID-19 detection program is one way the people of Bristol County can stay ahead of the curve.”

“This is all science,” Douglas said during a small canine graduation ceremony on Wednesday. “This program was developed by professors, doctors and scientists at FIU, and we couldn’t be more proud or excited to execute it here in Bristol County.”

In the months ahead, Huntah and Duke will also be trained in locating missing people, the office noted.

The dogs were purchased through a donation from Dr. David Askew and Mrs. Jane Askew of Dartmouth Dental.

Kathy Costa of Katz Pet Supply in Somerset donates dog food for the Sheriff's Office, the statement noted.

The COVID canines are available to Bristol County schools, town buildings, nonprofits, nursing homes, public safety facilities, and medical facilities for COVID sweeps.

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