CONCORD, Calif. – Scarlett is suited up and ready to learn. The Labrador starts her school day on a training wheel, stopping at each can as she walks by. She sniffs for her target and finds it, earning praise from her handler.
“Yes! Good girl,” Elizabeth Johnson tells her.
That’s because, inside the can is an old sock once worn by someone who tested positive for COVID. When she gets it right, Johnston gives her, and her canine pal, Rizzo, a cookie.
The experts explained that in a human, most of the scent comes from the head, armpits, groin and feet.
“And in looking at those options, we went with feet,” explained Early Alert Canines Executive Director Carol Edwards
The dogs aren’t sniffing for the virus itself. Instead, their sense of smell picks up the chemical changes bodies produce when fighting COVID.
“It’s the body’s response to it, and the byproduct of that, coming through the skin,” Edwards said. “Anybody the dog would alert on would have to have a rapid test, because we’d have to know if the dog was correct or not.”
Early Alert Canines, located in Concord, Calif., is part of a pilot program with the California Department of Health and the Association of Public Health Laboratories. The CDC Foundation is funding the program.
Scarlett and Rizzo are two dogs being trained to use their extraordinary sense of scent to detect the virus from a row of people and then they’ll be able to tell who tests positive for the disease, Johnston said, no matter the variant or if the person is asymptomatic.
Edwards explained it like this: “When you and I smell an orange, we go, ‘Mmm, an orange.’ A dog will smell the last three people who handled the orange, they’ll smell the soil it was fertilized with, the impurities in the water that watered it.”
The trainers at Early Alert Canines have been training medical alert dogs for 10 years, mostly for people with diabetes.
But this is the first time they’re teaching the dogs to find COVID.
The ultimate goal of the pilot program is to use the dogs in schools.
In an email, a spokesperson from health department told KTVU: “While COVID-19 sniffing dogs have shown success in airports and sports venues, they have not yet been tried in schools. Yet, of all venues, this could be the most impactful area for COVID-19 sniffing dogs.”
Scarlett and Rizzo will go through 12 weeks of training and this spring, they’ll shift to another 12 weeks of training on school campuses. The state health department doesn’t know which schools, just yet.
“I think people are really excited about this project because it’s so much faster,” Edwards said. “They can test 300 people in half an hour. They’d just go down the line, sniff, sniff, sniff. Anybody the dog would alert on would have to have a rapid test, because we’d have to know if the dog was correct or not.”
The dog’s trainers have full confidence in Scarlett and Rizzo.
“These guys, they blow me away every time I work with them,” Johnston said. “They’re very fast. They want to learn, they want to please, they want to do this. They’re great students. End of the day I give them grades and I give them A- pluses!”