This week, NASCAR announced that it would be enlisting a team of COVID-19 detecting dogs to help bolster the league's virus protocols at Sunday’s Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The dogs trained in collaboration with Alabama's 360 K9 Group's K9 Bio Detection unit and Florida's F1K9 company are appearing on a trial basis and only scanning race teams, NASCAR officials, and the vendors that work inside the garage—not drivers or fans.
Though it's a test run, they signal an emerging and promising new field in the fight against the pandemic and could help ensure a safe resumption of crowds at concerts, sporting events, and conventions. If anything, these dogs make for a much cuter pandemic experience than inserting a swab up your nose.
The Miami Heat have been employing teams of dogs to screen fans since January and airports in Finland and Lebanon have successfully used these canines to spot sick passengers. Preliminary studies suggest that compared to rapid testing, using these COVID-19 sniffing dogs is a relatively accurate way to screen for the virus and is a much quicker and more cost-effective method to manage crowds. "Every single group that developed canines, regardless of the training method used reported at least 86 percent accuracy," said Dr. William Schneider, Chief Scientific Officer at F1K9 who helped train the dogs that will screen NASCAR personnel this weekend. "Our canines are working at a 99 percent accuracy level. If it's really as accurate as it's been in every validation study we've done, it's hugely effective and would be a huge step in returning to normalcy for concerts and venues."
Compared to human noses which only have around 5 million or 6 million scent receptors, dogs can boast up to 300 million scent receptors that allow them to detect infinitesimal concentrations of odor that people aren't able to. Canines are already an established factor in law enforcement where they detect firearms, explosives, and drugs but their abilities can be used for basically anything. "You can train a dog to detect anything that has an odor as long as the odor is available, and it's not harmful to the dog," says Jerry Johnson, President of 360 K9's K9 Bio-Detection company.
The dogs that are going to NASCAR's Atlanta Motor Speedway are trained to detect sweat in persons infected with COVID-19 in a process that Dr. Scheider said takes around eight to ten weeks. Though all individual dogs are different, F1K9 and Bio-Detection K9 train canines from a variety of different breeds like German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois, and Labrador Retrievers. "Though all of our dogs are social and friendly, when we can we lean towards the floppy-ear dogs like Labrador Retrievers when we are working around a lot of people so they can feel at ease and not afraid of the pointy ear dogs," said Johnson. "Instead of standing in line and waiting for somebody to show up with a handheld thermometer or a rapid test, people are generally curious about having a dog show up to screen them," said Dr. Schneider. "They don't find the process as invasive. They even take pictures of the canines and are generally curious about how it works."
Once trained, Johnson and Dr. Schneider claim that the dogs can detect the virus in a matter of seconds. If they come across someone with the COVID-19 odor, the canine sits down to alert its handler that the person needs additional screening. "To the dog, this is the best game ever and they want to keep playing forever," said Dr. Schneider. Because of the quick screening time, these trained dogs are able to efficiently scan crowds much faster than other traditional methods like rapid testing which takes about 30-45 minutes per dose.
"Based on our training and some simulations we've done, we think we can screen one dog team that can screen 300 to 600 people per hour," said Johnson. It's also a cheaper alternative since rapid-testing measures often cost anywhere from $30-$150 per test. Since these dogs are able to identify asymptomatic COVID-19 cases unlike temperature checks, which only measure if an individual has a fever, they could become a useful tool for venues beginning to host shows.
Because this is such an emerging field, there are challenges and questions about the accuracy and efficacy of dogs being tools to detect COVID-19. "We do have to provide the caveat that at this point, our dogs are not a diagnostic tool," says Johnson. "To truly be a diagnostic tool, you have to have certification from certain government agencies. We want to get to the point where a dog can essentially be a government regulated and approved medical device by the FDA." Dr. Schneider agreed with this point. "There's going to have to become a regulatory component to this so that isn't just everybody with a Chihuahua, putting up a sign and saying we'll detect this or that for you," he said.
Though there have been promising preliminary results from Dr. Schneider's research along with findings out of Germany and Thailand, both of which claim at least 94 percent accuracy, he notes that there needs to be more peer-reviewed research and resources going into this field. Dr. Schneider still sees obstacles for widespread implementation: "Will insurance companies get on board to the point where they're willing to accept the diagnosis by a canine? Will the medical community get on board a point where they're willing to accept the diagnosis by canines?"
However, if the trial run at NASCAR is a success, there's continued interest in this field, and the research confirms the promise of COVID-19 detecting dogs, it would be a game-changer for the future of live music, sports, and crowded events. "When there's a pandemic that shuts down our civilization, so to speak in order for us to function in a normal way, you need to screen people for the disease," said Dr. Schneider. "People need to realize that this is possible and it's actually really quite cool. I think there's going to be a time where canines are used for a lot of triage-type diagnoses. There would be a lot of advantages, both cost-wise and mental health-wise, and incorporating canines as a part of a more holistic health approach."