Andrew Gumper, founder and CEO of AG Production Services, has a plan to make the live entertainment industry safe enough to fully reopen for everyone, not just audiences and performers, but production crews as well.
Gumper had heard of service dogs being used to remind diabetics in need of insulin or tip off a patient who is about to have a seizure, and determined to find out if dogs could be used to identify people with Covid-19. His idea was to use sniffer dogs to check people involved with large gatherings, such as festivals, and he is poised to make his idea reality at events this spring. Gumper tracked down and partnered with STEMBioscent, a Florida-based company that trains dog for this purpose, and medical director Dr. Richard Ambrozic.
STEMBioscent founder and president Heather Junqueira, BS, CVT, is a scientific researcher whose focus is on veterinary technology. She had previously studied canines’ ability to smell cancer and had trained dogs for other medical tasks, including dogs that detect swine flu for the department of agriculture. Junqueira knew that canines could detect viruses and began researching using dogs to find people infected with coronavirus last March. In June, Junqueira carried out a pilot study on whether dogs can pick up biomarkers for Covid-19 in human sweat and the results were encouraging. Two unconnected studies in Europe have also found that dogs are between 79-100% accurate in determining whether a person is infected, and Junqueira’s results show a slightly more accurate rate. This compares favorably with the 15-minute tests available at the moment, which can range from 50-93% accuracy, and is much less invasive for the person being screened. Using dogs also eliminate errors in the test process, for example, a person not swabbing correctly, and the risk of defective or contaminated test kits.
So far, Junqueira has bred and trained 64 beagles for the job. She explains how the screening process works. “It is similar to the way the Transportation Security Administration uses bomb sniffing dogs. A dog will sniff you as you walk by in the security line and if a dog finds the specified smell it will do what we call “indicate” on the odor. We will have dogs and handlers walking up and down the lines to enter an event so It will be seamless and the checks do not add additional time to the line. To ensure accuracy we’ll do a double verification, so two dogs are sniffing the same area at slightly different points in the line, and if one or both indicate we will ask the person or persons to step out of line and go to a tented area where a third dog will be available to see if that one also indicates.” At that point, event security will become responsible for the infected person.
Junqueira has chosen to work with beagles because they have the third most number of olfactory nerves in the canine world, making their scent capabilities exceptional. She says, “Blooodhounds and Basset hounds are the top dogs, but bloodhounds can be intimidating because of their size and that could make concertgoers uncomfortable when everyone is there to have a good time. Basset hounds are good but they have no drive, they don’t want to work for you.” Beagles, on the other hand, are really sweet dogs that treat the exercise like a big game of hide and seek. According to Junqueira, they enjoy sniffing out the odor and being rewarded with a treat. Each dog will “work” for two hours and then have a break back at the kennel in a modified horse truck, where they will stay from the the beginning to the end of the festival, not just during the show. Gumper says, “My angle is to protect the production crew and everyone else on the site, not just the crowd. Yes, I want festivals and shows to come back and be at 100% capacity and get everyone back to work, but the bigger issue for me is let’s keep everyone safe.“
Gumper’s plan is to provide dogs from the first moment of the build to the last day workers are on the site. He asks, “What happens if someone walks in positive on day one and spreads it to 75% of the crew? You have no one to build the festival and you have to shut down. I see that as more important than screening the audience in some ways, they can move around and they are outside. But people working together for weeks, eating together and touching the same equipment, that is a huge risk and we can protect them.” The number of dogs required will vary during the show and is based on the number of entrances, rather than the number of people on site. Each entrance requires two dogs, so if there are two entrances during setup four dogs can handle the checks and patrol the activity, if there are eight entrances during the first day of the festival the organizers will need to rent 16 dogs plus back ups for when they are on break.
Sniffer dogs are currently being trialed at other events, including a recent NASCAR race and at various airports around the world. The difference between those and STEMBioscent’s program is the handling and training. The NASCAR event required dogs to lick the hands of entering audience members, a move that Junqueira says is unnecessary as dogs can smell biomarkers from up to 12 feet away, and could also be counterproductive, as alcohol in hand sanitizers on people’s hands can interfere with odor. It is also important to train the dogs on one scent only, rather than cross training airport dogs who are used to searching for other smells, which could be anything from drugs to other contraband. Junqueira says, “It will confuse the situation to have a dog indicating on something you are not looking for.”
Gumper is negotiating with several upcoming festivals in the US to use the dogs to create a safe bubble for participants and is confident that they will be keeping people safe this spring. Medical director Dr. Ambrozic confirms his belief in the dogs. He says he would be comfortable attending a large indoor or outdoor event without a mask but only, “after canine screening with STEMBioscent trained and supervised canines.”