Scientists are training dogs to sniff out COVID-19 at airports and other public places

E.T., one of the sniffer dogs being trained to detect the coronavirus disease from the arriving passengers' samples, sits by his trainer Anette Kare at Helsinki Airport in Vantaa, Finland, September 22, 2020. Photo by Lehtikuva via REUTERS.

Scientists are turning to anything they can to help stop the spread of coronavirus. That includes dogs, who’ve been trained to detect other diseases, including cancer, malaria and Parkinson’s Disease. Now dogs worldwide are learning how to detect COVID-19. 

Researchers are trying to find out what volatile organic compounds (scents) are coming off of these diseases, and they hope dogs can screen people at airports, schools, train stations, and sporting events. That’s according to Maria Goodavage, journalist and author of “Doctor Dogs: How Our Best Friends Are Becoming Our Best Medicine.”

“They're training them on the scent of people with COVID-19. And the best way that I've seen is to have swabs of sweat. … At a few airports in the UAE [United Arab Emirates] … they have to test negative to get into the country, but then some will get this extra test of an underarm swab. … Then that goes to a backroom where the dogs are there to sniff out samples. And reportedly they're doing a really good job.”

COVID-19 alters people’s body chemistry, Goodavage explains. “In this case, what they're thinking is that it is something that the body goes through, and the scent of your body changes. … Certainly dogs can tell it with diabetes when your biochemistry changes. … They’ve shown time and time again, in training and in research, that there is a scent to people and they [researchers] don't know what it is.”

Asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic people with COVID-19 can be detected by dogs too, as early research has shown (but can be disproven in the future), Goodavage says.

“Dogs have such incredibly sensitive olfactory anatomy. … They can smell things we couldn't even imagine. … I wish they could talk and tell us what it is they're smelling, and that ‘yeah, that guy has or that woman has no symptoms, but of course I can smell it.’ So that's the hope in the future because obviously that's what we really want to capture, not someone who's already feeling a little punky.”

Goodavage says dogs smell in 3D, meaning their nostrils can work independently. One nostril might be sniffing one thing, and the other nostril might be exploring something else. 

“The way they inhale and exhale is even helpful for us to know about because our scent-detecting machinery that's being used in laboratories for other things has started mimicking the way a dog's nose smells. … So it's amazing what the beauty that is a dog's nose, and what we're learning about that and all these things that plague humankind.” 

Goodavage notes that all dog breeds can be really good at this, and the best ones are those with a high drive for a reward, especially a toy or food.

She says hopefully in a few months, more and more of these dogs will show up to public venues. She points out that at London’s Paddington Station, there was a test run of dogs that successfully identified COVID-positive people, and the idea is that dogs will be able to screen about 250 people per hour per dog.

She adds, “Now that's not a lot when you think about these venues that have many tens of thousands of people. It will take a lot. … They have to be really selective of where the dogs are employed. But it will be nice, and one day when I go to my local mall, I would not mind seeing a dog there screening people as we enter.” 

And don’t worry, these dogs don’t bite, Goodavage says.

— Written by Amy Ta, produced by Sarah Sweeney and Rosalie Atkinson

Credits

Guest:
Maria Goodavage - journalist and author of “Doctor Dogs: How Our Best Friends Are Becoming Our Best Medicine”

Host:
Madeleine Brand

Producers:
Sarah Sweeney, Michell Eloy, Amy Ta, Rosalie Atkinson, Brian Hardzinski, Caleigh Wells, Angie Perrin