COVID-19 Detector Dog Program
A dog’s nose is the new technology identifying COVID-19 in humans.
The University of Adelaide is leading Australian research and trials into COVID-19 detector dogs to identify and prevent the spread of the virus.
The program is coordinated by Dr Anne-Lise Chaber and Dr Susan Hazel from the University’s School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences, with participation from the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (Biosecurity), Australian Border Force and the South Australian Metropolitan Fire Service.
Protecting Australia's biosecurity
The program aims to demonstrate that COVID-19 detector dogs can provide an efficient, reliable and complementary screening method as part of Australia’s future biosecurity strategies.
More than 15 countries are training dogs for COVID-19 detection as part of Nosias, an international research alliance led by the National Veterinary School in Alfort, France.
The Australian team of 15 dogs are completing feasibility training at the University of Adelaide and at the Australian Border Force’s detector dog facility in Victoria. A further four dogs have recently started training at the Dept AWE (Biosecurity) Dog Training Centre in Queensland.
Meet the dogs: Quake
Hi I'm Quake!
I'm a male Labrador from Adelaide. I'm amazing with children and I love runs on the beach.
Participate in trials
Your participation in dog deployment trials will help us prepare our dogs for greater community testing. Trials are currently underway at various locations across Australia including airports.
Participation in a trial involves:
- A short health survey.
- Placing a cotton gauze under each armpit and holding for 2 minutes.
- Placing the gauze in the bag provided.
Your sample will be taken to the detection room and sniffed by our dogs for the presence of smells associated with a COVID-19 infection.
Frequently asked questions (FAQs)
If a dog indicates that I have COVID-19, should I get a COVID-19 test?
If a dog does detect the virus from your sweat sample, we strongly recommend that you undergo a COVID-19 test to confirm the diagnosis.
Does COVID-19 actually have a smell?
COVID-19 detector dogs do not detect the virus itself; they search for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that the body produces when affected by the virus.
These VOCs can be detected even when someone has no symptoms, or the disease is still in the incubation phase. The traditional nose and throat swab cannot detect COVID-19 during the incubation phase.
The dogs will not be misled if you are infected by the flu, the common cold or another virus.
How do you train a dog to identify COVID-19?
Training a dog to detect COVID-19 is similar to training them to detect explosives.
A dog is exposed to many human sweat samples with variable strains of the virus, taken from different people with differing symptoms. The dogs are initially rewarded when they sniff the sample. The dogs are then challenged with sweat samples from both people infected with COVID-19 and people without the virus.
Training can take six to eight weeks for a dog that is already trained to detect other scents, or three to six months for a dog that has not received training in detection. Throughout training we only provide positive reinforcements.
What encourages the dogs to detect COVID-19?
The dogs are encouraged by positive rewards such as treats and encouragement from their handlers. The dogs see the detection process as a fun game of hide-and-seek, and get a treat when they find the positive sample. If a positive sample is not detected, the dog does not receive a reward and has another try. Dogs in double-blind testing have shown exceptional accuracy.
How are the dogs treated?
The detector dogs are well looked after, kept in peak condition, well exercised and nutritiously fed. They live with their handlers and are brought in on workdays. Work rooms are kept at a comfortable temperature and humidity for the dogs. If conditions are deemed too hot or cold, the dogs are given a rest day.
What type of dog can become a COVID-19 detector dog?
Dogs are specially selected for the program, and not all dogs are suited to this type of detection. Suitability depends on the dog having the confidence to make decisions and maintain that decision, their ability to learn, and consistency of results. A majority of our dogs are Labradors.
Can I train my dog to detect COVID-19?
No. Teaching a dog to detect COVID-19 requires the expertise of professional dog handlers and access to lots of positive and negative samples of the disease.
Why aren’t the dogs already being used at airports, schools and businesses?
COVID-19 detectors dogs are already being used at borders and in communities in the United Arab Emirates. Dogs have also been deployed in communities within France. 15 more countries have dogs in training.
In Australia, we are now liaising with the health authorities to run deployment trials in public spaces. Because this is a new screening tool, the process needs to be studied and robustly tested before public health authorities embrace and accept the use of dogs to screen for disease in populations.
Can dogs become infected by COVID-19?
Dogs replicate the virus very poorly, and are not considered to be a susceptible species. Unfortunately, cats are the opposite.
What other illnesses can a dog detect?
There is growing evidence that dogs can be used to screen people for infectious diseases.
To date, 35 research studies have used dogs to detect different types of cancer. Another study used dogs to detect Clostridium difficile – a deadly bacteria - during a hospital outbreak; and a further project used dogs to detect urinary tract infections.
These studies highlight the potential for using trained dogs to screen large numbers of people for diseases such as COVID-19.