UK-based Medical Detection Dogs will be working in partnership with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and Durham University, bringing together the team which recently collaborated to successfully prove that dogs can be trained to detect malaria to now detect the Covid-19 virus. 

Together they have started preparations to intensively train dogs so they could be ready in 6 weeks to help provide a rapid, non-invasive diagnosis towards the tail end of the epidemic, and approached the government about how dogs can play a role in the fight against the disease, the charity said. 

If those studies are shared and deployed successfully across the globe to other medical detection dog companies and charities, there is the potential to save lives by getting people tested sooner rather than later, helping to stop the mass spread of the disease and all thanks to man’s best friend.

Dogs searching for COVID-19 would be trained in the same way as those dogs the charity has already trained to detect diseases like cancer, Parkinson’s and bacterial infections – by sniffing samples in the charity’s training room and indicating when they have found it.  They are also able to detect subtle changes in temperature of the skin, body odor linked to viruses, and could potentially tell if someone has a fever. 

The charity has spent years successfully researching the science behind dogs’ sense of smell and believes that dogs could detect the disease. It has always adopted a rigorous, scientific approach to its work, and produced more than a dozen peer-reviewed research papers that support its belief that each disease has its own unique odor. 

Dr Claire Guest, CEO and Co-Founder of Medical Detection Dogs, says: “In principle, we’re sure that dogs could detect COVID-19.  We are now looking into how we can safely catch the odor of the virus from patients and present it to the dogs.”

Why is this proactive research so important?

Guest, a trained psychologist and dog behaviorist, says the aim is to train dogs so that they will be able to screen anyone, including those who are asymptomatic and tell us whether they need to be tested. 

“This would be fast, effective and non-invasive and make sure the limited NHS testing resources are only used where they are really needed,” says Guest.

She is not alone in her line of thinking. Professor James Logan, Head of Department of Disease Control at The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and Director of ARCTEC, confirms that previous work demonstrated that dogs can detect odors from humans with a malaria infection with extremely high accuracy – above the World Health Organisation standards for a diagnostic. 

“We know that other respiratory diseases like COVID-19, change our body odor so there is a very high chance that dogs will be able to detect it,” says Logan.

“This new diagnostic tool could revolutionize our response to COVID-19 in the short term, but particularly in the months to come, and could be profoundly impactful,” he says.

Professor Steve Lindsay at Durham University says: “If the research is successful, we could use COVID-19 detection dogs at airports at the end of the epidemic to rapidly identify people carrying the virus. This would help prevent the re-emergence of the disease after we have brought the present epidemic under control.” 

Once trained, dogs could also be used to identify travelers entering the country infected with the virus or be deployed in other public spaces. 

It can take up to two years to train a puppy and costs £29,000 to care for, train, place and support a dog and his or her partner to become an accredited assistance dog team. You can make direct donations via the Medical Detection Dogs website or simply link your online shopping to add partial proceeds instead.