Can Dogs Be Trained to Detect COVID-19?

Back in April 2020, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, along with Medical Detection Dogs, a nonprofit, and Durham University announced its intention to see if dogs are capable of detecting COVID-19.

Now, more than a year later, the study has revealed its Phase 1 findings

At the beginning, scientists were unsure if COVID-19 gave off a distinct odor, but early research indicates that it does. The study focused on six dogs, named Millie, Kyp, Lexi, Marlow, Asher and Tala, who were able to pick up the scent after six to eight weeks of training. All the dogs were at least four to six years old, and were Labrador, Golden Retriever or Cocker Spaniel breeds.

To start, the scientists worked with dogs in a controlled environment, and trained them to identify the virus’ distinct scent from clothing and masks. Both the dogs and their handlers were unaware if the sample was positive or negative before testing the dog.

After going through 200 positive and 200 negative samples, “the highest performing dogs in the trial detected the odor of the virus in the samples with up to 94.3 percent sensitivity (meaning a low risk of false negative results) and up to 92 percent specificity (meaning a low risk of false positive results),” according to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. 

Given the speed that dogs have shown to recognize and identify the samples, this method could prove to be a much faster and more efficient method of testing, especially in large crowds or busy areas. Professor James Logan, who led the project, told CNN that dogs could also serve as a “visual deterrent” for those infected with the virus to think twice before traveling into high traffic areas.

While dogs were able to differentiate between the samples scientists provided, there are a lot of factors still in question before dogs can start detecting COVID-19 over PCR tests. One is that these these samples only prove that the dogs were able to sniff out the virus on clothing, not on actual humans.

As such, scientists will try to train the dogs to detect COVID-19 in humans directly for the next phase of this study. 

“Further research is needed to see if the dogs can replicate these results in a real-world setting, but these findings are hugely encouraging,” said Logan. “The advantage of using this method is being able to detect COVID-19 with incredible speed and good accuracy among large groups of people, even in asymptomatic cases.”  

Even though this research is still in the early stages, some countries have already started relying on dogs to help detect COVID-19, with successful detection rates that mirror this study’s initial findings.