On the frontline: NCSU professor shares science behind COVID-19 sniffing dogs

Dogs who have joined the fight against COVID-19 are now being used to sniff out humans who may have the virus.

The Miami Heat is one of the first in the nation to deploy dogs to search people in line before attending a game. The dogs sit near a person when it detects a potential carrier of COVID-19.

While dogs on the frontline using their acute sense of smell aren't anything new, the science behind how to train them to sniff out coronavirus and how effective it is is still being gathered.

At NCSU's Veterinary School, Dr. David Dorman has led several research studies surrounding dogs using their sense of smell to detect bombs and cancer. Dorman says when it comes to a dog using its acute sense of smell to detect the virus there are many questions as to what exactly the dog is smelling.

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"So, what we don't know for example is, are the dogs actually detecting the smell of the virus or our body's response to the virus?" Dorman explained. "So, for example, if say I have an infection with COVID, maybe my sweat changes because I also have a fever. That's something an animal may be detected, those types of signals, rather than the virus itself," said Dorman.

Researchers say training dogs to sniff out COVID-19 can be as simple as having them detect it first through sweat or urine samples then having trained dogs look for the same scent in crowds.

"This approach has been used at the Helsinki airport for several months on a voluntary basis," said Dorman. "Where travelers going through Helsinki will provide a sweat sample, they basically take a little bit of a Q tip, rub it under their armpit and pass it to the dog to see if they might have COVID. So, that's been attempted. There's also been a couple of experimental studies that were recently published, showing the dogs can be accurate about 80% or more of the time, detecting a COVID positive patient, if they're presented with sweat or a saliva sample."

"How that will translate to people passing rapidly as they enter into a sports arena, that's harder to predict but there is some preliminary data that shows that this might be encouraging."

While encouraging, Dorman points out as always in science nothing is ever perfect.

"Dogs are never perfect. So, even though they might be accurate 80 or 90% of the time that also means they might be making the mistake 10 or 20% of the time," said Dorman. "And, that's an important thing to consider. So, none of these approaches, including the nasal swabs, we use is 100% accurate. So, there's still the need for people to take precautions and not just rely entirely on the dog."

Dorman says there will be ongoing studies looking at COVID-19 and sniffing dogs and their use could be adapted to other emerging viral diseases down the road.
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