Two Vancouver Coastal Health experts with excellent noses have been working hard to make sure local hospitals remain bacteria-free.

Angus and Dodger aren't typical VCH staff, however. In fact the two are English springer spaniels tasked with sniffing out C. difficile, a superbug that attacks people with weakened immune systems.

The pair are members of C. difficile Canine Scent Detection Program at VCH and recently passed an odour-recognition test with flying colours. 

"Angus and Dodger's special talents have a tremendous impact on people's lives by helping prevent the spread and infection of C. difficile," says Adrian Dix, B.C.'s Minister of Health, in a news release. 

"On behalf of all British Columbians who benefit from their keen sense of smell and specialty training, we are grateful for this innovative approach to protecting patients and families."

VCH English spaniels

Between May 1, 2017 and Oct. 31, 2018, Angus and Dodger teamed up with their handlers Teresa Zurberg and Jaime Knowles to sniff out 659 clinical areas at Vancouver General Hospital. The dogs smelled C. difficile and alerted their handlers 391 times. 

In 82 per cent of those cases, the dogs smelled the bacteria in washrooms, hallways, waiting rooms, staff lockers and lounges and on equipment carts. The teams didn't search occupied patient rooms, however. 

"Every positive alert is a teaching moment," said Zurberg, Angus' handler. 

"We work with infection control practitioners to identity how C. difficile is spreading and address cleaning and disinfection practices. C. difficile is invisible and invasive, so even the most stringent cleaning might miss it." 

In one case, the inside of a toilet paper dispenser tested positive for the bacteria. Changing the design of the dispenser or the paper itself could reduce the risk of contamination. 

"The canine team alerts have confronted our presumptions of where C. difficile reservoirs lie and challenged us to re-examine the way we approach infection prevention," said Elizabeth Bryce, director of infection control for VCH. 

If Angus or Dodger alert the team of bacteria, the area is cleaned thoroughly with the help of rapid disinfecting robots.

Since the program began in 2016 the canine teams at VCH have searched hundreds of hospital areas.