Dogs are training to possibly detect coronavirus

If dogs can detect an odor associated with COVID-19 they can be trained to identify it in moving people, helping with detection.
By Meghan Holohan

A few good boys and girls are tackling a very important job: Eight dogs are training to see if they can sniff out the coronavirus. And if they succeed, they could help find asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19.

“We should be mindful of the fact that right now we don’t know if the dogs have any sort of inherent ability to detect COVID-19,” Cynthia Otto, director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, told TODAY. “So the first thing with COVID-19 is: Can dogs detect a unique odor associated with infections?”

Miss M is one of the eight Labrador retrievers being trained to potentially be COVID-19-detecting dogs. If dogs are able to identify a scent associated with the virus, they could help identify asymptomatic carriers. Courtesy Pat Nolan for Penn Vet

To understand this, the yellow, black and brown Labrador retrievers will be smelling urine, saliva and breath samples from people who had COVID-19 (at the same time chemists will be trying to identify a scent associated with the virus).

“It’s going to be interesting because we don’t know what the chemical is and we don’t know if it’s likely to be in the urine or if it’s more likely to be in the breath,” Otto explained. “Dogs are just so amazingly sensitive that we feel like if there is an odor, the dogs are going to find it.”

If the pups identify a scent, then they will be tasked with distinguishing the difference between samples from people with COVID-19 and some without it. When they correctly identify samples with the COVID-19 odor they’ll receive treats and praise — exactly what every dog craves.

“We can do lots of repetitions,” Otto said. “If they put their nose in it and we go ‘Hey, yeah! Good job!’ Or we use a clicker which makes a clicking noise and they associate that with like ‘Oh I'm getting my reward now.’ And so then they get food.”

When they realize they don’t get enthusiastic words, clicks and food when they point out samples without COVID-19, they understand the rules of the “game.”

“The dogs are so fast at picking this up,” Otto said.

Cynthia Otto's team at the Center for Working Dogs at Penn Vet have worked with dogs to train them to detect other illnesses, such as ovarian cancer. Courtesy Sabina Louise

Dogs can detect other illnesses in humans. Some specially trained dogs can tell when a diabetic person’s blood sugar changes dangerously and sound an alert. And, the Working Dog Center helped dogs detect ovarian cancer.

If dogs do detect a certain odor in people with the coronavirus and are able to distinguish it from non-COVID-19 samples, the training will move to humans carrying samples, which makes it much harder. The dogs have to correctly identify the moving person holding the viral sample.

“(We can) start really drilling down and making sure that we're looking at the sensitivity and specificity that they're telling us: Is this actually associated with COVID-19 and not with influenza and not with allergies?” Otto said. “Can the dog actually recognize (coronavirus)? That changes the picture.”

Poncho will also try to discover if COVID-19 has a unique detectable odor. People respond well to floppy-eared dogs like Labs, which makes them perfect for working in crowds. Courtesy Pat Nolan for Penn Vet

If dogs can detect the coronavirus by smell, there will be still be challenges to overcome.

First, they need to figure out the best way to keep the dog handlers safe from the virus. The dogs will need to be close to humans to detect it, putting handlers within 6 feet of infected people. Otto is not overly concerned that the dogs could contract or carry COVID-19, despite recent reports of a pug in North Carolina testing positive for COVID-19. Though they will take extra precautions.

"We (will) monitor the dogs," she said, adding they would check their noses and fur for traces of the virus. "We would want to see their antibody response so that we have a good sense of what that risk is."

Sadly, there’s a shortage of screening dogs so it’s unclear how this program could be scaled.

The center is collaborating with a group at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine that’s also training dogs to detect the virus.

“One of our goals in this process is to determine the safest way to train these dogs … We are working with virologists and we’re working with infectious disease specialists and chemists and really trying to put all this together," Otto said.

She cautions people against believing their dogs can detect if they’re sick with coronavirus. Often when pups act differently toward their people it’s simply that they notice a difference and it could be a positive thing, such as a pregnancy.

“If your dog is maybe being extra clingy or sniffing a lot that doesn’t necessarily mean anything in relation to coronavirus,” she said. “Knowing the human animal bond … they know if there's something going on that's different. They're picking it up but they often don't know that it's a problem.”