Scent-Trained Dogs Pilot Program for COVID-19 Detection in Schools

Scent-Trained Dogs Pilot Program for COVID-19 Detection in Schools

In California, a pilot program has been established to screen for COVID-19 in schools by using scent-trained medical alert dogs. The program was designed to provide an alternative screening method for schools since at-home tests weren’t yet available and antigen testing in schools was time-intensive and used a lot of resources. The program reported an overall accuracy of 90%.

The Pilot Program

Early Alert Canines trained two yellow labs, Rizzo and Scarlet, to detect volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted by people with COVID-19. The dogs were trained to detect VOCs using a scent wheel. Socks from people who tested positive and negative for COVID-19 were collected to train the dogs. Once the dogs proved they could identify the positive samples on the scent wheel, they were trained to sniff human ankles and alert if they found the VOCs.

During the pilot program, K-12 California schools volunteered to be part of the testing. On the same day that antigen testing was already scheduled, students lined up 6 feet apart, and Rizzo and Scarlet sniffed each one’s ankles. The dogs had an overall accuracy of 90%, correctly identifying 85 COVID-19 infections and ruling out 3,411 infections. They inaccurately signaled infection in 383 cases and missed 18 infections.

The dogs’ accuracy was checked by administering antigen tests if a dog signaled positive. The program was conducted over 50 visits to 27 schools from April to May 2022. In total, 3,897 paired antigen-dog screenings were completed among 1,558 participants. The participants’ median age was 13, and 55.8% were female. Of the participants, 89% were students, and 68% were screened at least twice.

In conclusion, the pilot program supports the use of dogs for efficient and noninvasive COVID-19 screening in schools. The study also noted that the low levels of SARS-CoV-2 transmission during the study period and, therefore, the low number of COVID-19 infections were limitations to the study. Modifications are required before widespread implementation, but this study provides a practical application that mimics how canine detection would be used in the real world. The study supports the use of scent-trained dogs for COVID-19 screening and could be used for other pathogens. The dogs are now being used to detect COVID-19 in California nursing homes.


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