Going back to the office is ruff.
At BARK, the company behind BarkBox and other dog supplies, employees coming into work on Thursday were greeted by some new co-workers: three COVID-sniffing beagles named Buddy, Noel and Solo.
The roughly 40 workers in attendance — the company has six stories of offices in Chinatown, but its 250 or so NY-based employees are returning on a case-by-case basis — all had to report to the second floor. There, seasoned dogs Buddy and Noel gave a quick sniff to ensure everyone was COVID-free, while Solo, a puppy who is in training, served as an adorable greeter.
The dogs are part of BioScentDX, a Florida-based organization that trains medical-detection dogs. The company has 20 dogs that have been trained to sniff out COVID-19 in conjunction with the Global Forensic and Justice Center Detection Dog Program at Florida International University. FIU has hired out the dogs for a number of recent concerts and festivals. In double-blind trials, the animals have detected COVID with 98% accuracy, greater than PCR tests.
“When people contract [the virus], they produce specific volatile organic compounds, or biomarkers,” explained Dr. Ken G. Furton, an FIU chemist and a leading scholar in the forensics of scent detection.
Face masks worn by those with the virus are used to teach dogs to pick up the scent of COVID-19 on the breath. The masks are treated with light to kill the virus, but the scent remains. Any breed can be taught to sniff out the virus, but beagles are particularly suited for it because they are highly motivated by food for training and have a strong sense of smell.
“They’re fast, they’re efficient, unintimidating and ridiculously adorable,” said Stacie Grissom, BARK’s director of content and communications
If a dog detects the scent of COVID-19 in the field, they sit down to alert their handler. Then, a PCR test can be administered. The animals can quickly and easily sniff through crowds, making them ideal for large offices and events.
“Even a rapid test takes 10 minutes,” said Clifford “Kip” Schulz, director of the Detection Dog Program. “With a dog, it’s instantaneous.”
On Thursday, the beagles did not detect COVID on anyone in the office, a fact employees found comforting.
“I definitely felt more comfortable,” said Grissom. (The pups did randomly pick up the scent on city streets and in their hotel, a situation trainers are still determining the best way to handle.)
It takes roughly six months to teach a pup to sniff out medical problems, but once the basic skills are learned, dogs can be taught to alert for new and varied conditions, such as cancer or norovirus, in as little as a few weeks. Fido might soon be known more for detecting disease than bombs and drugs.
“Really this is the tip of the iceberg in terms of potential applications,” said Furton.