When visitors enter the lobby of Doctors Hospital of Sarasota they're greeted by Buffy, a friendly yellow Lab sporting a work vest. Her handler, hospital employee Grace Welsby, approaches guests and asks if Buffy can smell their shoes.
"I'm going to have her walk by you and she's going to sniff at your feet,” Welsby tells them. “If you do have COVID, she will lay down. If not, she's just going to walk on by.”
Most visitors seem to have no problem being screened by a cute dog with a wagging tail and readily submit to the scent test. After a quick sniff, the Labrador retriever walks promptly back to Welsby signaling the visitor is COVID-free.
Buffy works at the hospital three days a week, and has been screening visitors for COVID-19 since April.
She’s not replacing other screening processes but is being offered as an additional resource. Buffy was trained at Southeastern Guide Dogs in Palmetto, which teaches service dogs to help disabled veterans and people with vision loss. Scent detection is something new for them.
Training dogs for this purpose required actual samples of the virus. Those were collected by swabbing the saliva of consenting patients with COVID. The samples were then heated, a process that inactivates the virus but doesn't change the odor the dogs are reacting to.
"We went through several months of figuring out not only from a logistical perspective how to proceed, but also looking at all the legal requirements and how patients would feel about donating a sample for this," said Bob Meade, the CEO of Doctors Hospital. “And how to keep it safe.”
Buffy and several other dogs were trained to recognize the chemicals in the saliva of the patients with coronavirus. One of the methods used was exposing the animals to competing scents like cinnamon and mint.
Soon, Buffy was able to detect COVID-19 with 95 percent accuracy.
"These dogs have about 6 million scent cells in their noses which is about six or seven times that of humans,” said Titus Herman, CEO of Southeastern Guide Dogs. “They can detect scents even while they're exhaling."
Buffy caught a whiff of the virus on a visitor during her first week at the hospital.
Welsby, the dog’s handler, says it only took seconds for the dog to recognize the scent. The woman was then directed to the emergency room, where she tested positive for the virus.
"I know that someone has COVID when she won't get up after laying down unless I wave a treat in front of her face,” she said. “So that's how we knew that the patient had COVID."
Buffy keeps up with her training at the hospital and at home. She was adopted and now lives with the Meade family when she’s not at work.
“Someone has to feed and take care of her,” Meade said with a smile.
Using service dogs in the fight against coronavirus is happening across the world.
Early research indicates positive results with scent detection programs in Thailand, the United Kingdom and Germany. The hope is to deploy virus sniffing dogs to public spaces.
Florida Sen. Rick Scott is co-sponsoring a bill that would direct the Transportation Security Administration to study using dogs to screen for the virus at U.S. airports.
And Titus Herman at Southeastern Guide Dogs says canine scent detection could also benefit people long-term. The organization plans to train dogs to detect cortisol, a stress hormone often elevated for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
"So, what we're going to be asking some of our veterans to do is to send us a T-shirt that they wore during the night when they had a panic attack,” Herman said. “We will then train the dogs to detect that veterans’ specific chemicals so that they can alert the veteran before they actually happen."
Other studies suggest dogs can use their highly evolved sense of smell to detect diseases like cancer.
Back at the hospital, there is a brief lull in activity and Buffy is doling out a little love to hospital staff.
“We get some distracted employees occasionally and that’s all good,” said Meade, the hospital's CEO. “We’ve all been through a lot this year, and she’s sort of like pet therapy.”
But when new visitors walk through the doors of the hospital, Buffy and her sensitive snout get back to work.
The COVID scent detection continues with a gentle sniff, which looks less painful than a nasal swab, and a lot more cute.