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Good girl, Dana.

The alert and eager German shepherd, fortunate to share the home of west-of-Santa Rosa kennel owners Sapir and Jane Weiss, guards her family and retrieves tennis balls and responds to myriad commands as precisely as a BMW.

Dana also is a pioneer in an international effort to sniff out a revolutionary solution to the plague of mosquito-borne malaria that each year kills more than half a million people in sub-Sarahan Africa, most of them children younger than 5.

Dana and trainer/master Sapir Weiss of the Olivet Kennel & Dog Training Resort await an opportunity to travel a second time to torrid Mali or elsewhere in Africa to resume their role in a quest to determine whether dormant mosquitoes hide in large numbers during the region’s long dry season. If there are lairs and they can be discovered, the insects could be killed fairly easily before the arrival of seasonal rains triggers their mass assault on humans.

A recent article in the revered British journal Nature detailed how, in 2012, Dana became the first dog in the world to use her fine sense of smell to locate mosquitoes in holes in the ground, termite mounds, trees and other hiding places near the Malian village of Thierola.

The Israel-born Weiss, who grew up on a kibbutz and trained anti-terrorism dogs during a three-year stint in the Israeli army, noted one of the obstacles to the African mission: “The mosquitoes don’t have an odor.”

So a team led by entomologist Tovi Lehmann of the U.S. National Institute of Health’s Laboratory of Malaria and Vector Research first had to devise a way to set free mosquitoes after attaching a dog-detectable scent to them.

In the spring of 2012, Lehmann, Weiss and some Malian colleagues trapped mosquitoes they found in the mud homes of the approximately 300 residents of remote Thierola. Noted Weiss, a sturdy and charged man of 59, “Almost everybody in the village has malaria.”

Lehmann anesthetized captured mosquitoes, then affixed to each a tiny length of string that had been dipped in an oil. It is the scent of the oil that Dana is able to smell.

Once scented mosquitoes were released, it was Dana’s job to try to find them — and, hopefully, an entire population of dormant mosquitoes. NIH researcher Lehmann had been told by several dog trainers that such a search by a canine was impossible, then he located and asked Weiss, who had grown up in Israel with the researcher’s wife.

The Santa Rosan remembers telling Lehmann, “Of course it can be done. It’s only difficult.”

Prior to flying to Mali in February 2012, Weiss prepared by training Dana to signal upon finding the vials containing scented mosquitoes that he’d hidden around his and Jane’s property on Olivet Road, and at parks. Dana became very good at the task.

In Mali, Dana did find tagged mosquitoes in holes in trees and the parched ground, and in termite mounds. But the conditions were beyond miserable: The temperature was 110 to 130 degrees, and Weiss had to frequently cool Dana with water.

Dogs “can either pant or smell,” he said, “but they can’t do both.”

Though Dana became history’s first dog ever to locate tagged mosquitoes, she did not, during her and Weiss’ month in Africa, discover any large collections of the menacing insects. Dog and master left Mali with the mystery of where mosquitoes go during the dry season unsolved.

As it happened, Weiss’ departure from Africa was fortunately timed. Soon after his and Dana’s jetliner took off, a military coup chased President Amadou Toumani Touré from office.

Though hampered by the political instability in Mali, the search for a solution to malaria continues. Later in 2012, the Weisses played host to two visiting Malians, and Sapir Weiss taught them to train a pair of dogs to do what Dana did and follow their noses to tagged mosquitoes.

“There are still a few in Mali conducting the research,” Weiss said.

The lifelong dog trainer views the dog-assisted effort to save lives in West Africa as proof that humans are just beginning to discover the immense potential of the canine sense of smell. Dogs sniff out disease and bedbugs, and Weiss, whose home and kennel are surrounded by vineyards, would love to see someone put dogs to work diminishing the need for widespread spraying of vine pests.

He said he has no doubt that dogs could located aphids or other vineyard pests and allow the treatment of only infected vines, a vast improvement over blanket spraying.

He’s hoping also to have another shot at employing Dana or another dog to help to solve the scourge of malaria in Africa.

Weiss said he and his hard-working German shepherd could not have traveled to Mali were it not for Jane, who gave her blessings despite the dangers, and to dog lover and philanthropist Meriko Tamaki of San Francisco, who gave him Dana and contributed money to the research mission.

With malaria continuing to kill across a vast swath of Africa, Weiss longs to return. “I will go back even if I have to pay for it out of my own pocket,” he said.

“Just imagine, if we can solve the mystery and save millions of lives.”

You can reach Chris Smith at 521-5211 and chris.smith @pressdemocrat.com.

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