En español | Now and then Marshall, a 2-year-old golden retriever, walks into Frances Skelton's room and lies at her feet. The visit is a spirit-lifter for the 85-year-old Skelton, a resident of Benton House of Sugar Hill, a senior living community in Sugar Hill, Georgia.
"I rub him and we're best buddies for a few minutes and then he goes on to someone else,” she says.
But Marshall is no ordinary dog. He is one of a growing number of canines trained to sniff out COVID-19.
These dogs are able to detect coronavirus infections with astonishing accuracy rates — up to 95 percent. Though large-scale studies still are needed, canine COVID-19 detection programs are being developed in Russia, England, France, Germany and other countries.
The dogs are promoted as a reliable and relatively affordable way to test a large number of people in a short amount of time, such as at airports, hospitals or sports venues. In late January, the Miami Heat basketball team used COVID-19 detection dogs to screen fans at a game against the Los Angeles Clippers. If a dog sat down next to a ticket holder, that meant the virus was detected and that ticket holder was denied entrance to the arena.
Perhaps more importantly for nursing homes and senior living communities, the dogs are seen as a critical future tool to sniff out other common health concerns, including influenza and urinary tract infections — viral and bacterial issues known for affecting seniors.
'Extra layer of protection'
At Benton House of Sugar Hill, Marshall uses a different method for signaling the virus. He smells a sterile swab used to collect a sweat sample from residents. When a handler asks whether he smells COVID-19, he either taps with his nose or visually holds his gaze on the handler's right or left hand. The left means yes, the right means no.
Mike Allard, CEO of the Benton House family of senior living communities, reached out to service dog trainers Canine Assistants after reading about COVID-19-sniffing dogs in a news article he found on Twitter.
He wound up collaborating with the Georgia-based nonprofit, which already was training dogs to detect seizures or changes in blood sugar. Allard, who had donated to the dog training company in past years, provided initial seed money for training, vaccinations, food and boarding for five dogs to be put on the COVID-19 case. In addition to golden retriever Marshall, the four other dogs will be placed in other Benton House communities around Atlanta. The dogs will be used to detect the virus in residents and staff as well as ultimately in visitors.
"We'd like to see this in all of our communities eventually,” Allard says. “We're very anxious to have families return for visits."
Testing currently is focused on staff when possible, and residents who show symptoms. The current goal is to test every staff member on every shift, as well as guests and residents as needed.
As for the residents, they're happy that Marshall's nose is being added to other, more conventional testing protocols.
"It's good to have that extra layer of protection,” Skelton says.
Promising science in dogs’ virus-detection abilities
Research is being done around the world to determine how dependable specially trained dogs are in detecting the coronavirus.
So far, the evidence is promising.
In one proof-of-concept study, conducted in Paris and Beirut, researchers took sweat samples from the underarms of patients from five hospitals. The dogs with the least amount of training identified the COVID-19 samples more than 76 percent of the time. Two dogs with prior training in sniffing out cancer cells were able to discern the virus every single time.
Meanwhile, a team of dog trainers in a Czech Republic mountain village reported a 95 percent success rate in detecting COVID-19 — from samples obtained by rubbing a piece of cotton against human skin.
Dogs trained to detect scents can accurately perceive low concentrations of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, present in human blood, saliva, urine or breath and associated with various diseases, infections and tumors, according to Cynthia Otto, director of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine's Penn Vet Working Dog Center.
Even so, at this point COVID-19 detection dogs are being considered by many as a complementary tool rather than a replacement for comprehensive clinical testing.
Possibilities go beyond COVID-19
Jeff Minder remembers the exact date he was sure the dogs he was training to be virus detectors had discovered the scent of COVID-19: April 3, 2020.
After word spread, the owner of Top Tier K9 in Madison, Florida, received skepticism in response.
"Everybody said, “There's no way you can do that. You're lying,'” recalls Minder, 57. “I was all on my own. Now everybody's like … ‘Dogs can find the virus!'"
Minder trains Belgian malinois, German and Dutch shepherds, and British Labrador retrievers.
A former Air Force survival instructor, Minder says the possibilities for what dog scent recognition can achieve now appear endless, from detecting cancerous tumors to sniffing out Ebola and HIV.
"This opened up an unbelievable ability to apply canine olfactory processes to human challenges and threats,” he says. “We're looking at everything now."
In the short term, notes Minder, COVID-19-sniffing dogs — in combination with masking, handwashing, testing and other preventive measures — can offer additional safeguards from the threat of the virus so peoplen can gather more safely.
"In the long term,” he adds, “we can destroy the next pandemic before it's a pandemic."
Robin L. Flanigan is a contributing writer based in Rochester, New York, who covers mental health, education, and human-interest stories for national publications. A former beat reporter for several daily newspapers, her work has appeared in People Magazine, USA Today and Education Week.