Could COVID-Sniffing Dogs Make In-Person Events Safer?
An unusually furry NASCAR employee started work this past weekend. A black Lab named Dixie nosed her way along a line of people waiting to get into the garage ahead of Sunday’s Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
“She’s going to come by and sniff your left hand. If she licks it and you’re offended, there’s hand sanitizer up front,” a NASCAR staff member told people waiting in line, according to a video NASCAR sent WFAE.
Dixie wore a bright orange collar, wagging her tail excitedly as her handler led her on a leash from person to person. Dixie stuck her snout against each person’s hand for 5 to 10 seconds and gave a few affectionate licks to those who scratched her head.
Dixie is one of three COVID-sniffing dogs, trained by a collection of companies called 360 K9 Group, that screened about 1,000 NASCAR pit crew members and staff at the Atlanta race. She’s trained to “alert” or sit down when she detects the disease caused by the coronavirus.
“The dogs allow us to rapidly screen — and, essentially, test — that essential population before they go into the garage, in one location, in a very rapid amount of time,” said Tom Bryant, NASCAR’s managing director of racing operations, in an interview with WFAE in advance of Sunday’s race.
Bryant said NASCAR planned to run a rapid swab test on anyone that the dogs flagged. A NASCAR spokesperson would not say via email on Monday how many, if any, COVID-19 cases the dogs caught during the screening over the weekend.
Dogs are super sniffers with a sense of smell up to 100,000 times more acute than that of humans.
“Their world, the primary input is through their nose,” said William Schneider, the chief scientific officer for F1K9, one of the organizations involved in training the dogs for NASCAR.
Canines have been trained to find specific scents for a long time. Hunting dogs track certain animal smells. Bomb-sniffing dogs search for explosives. Drug-sniffing dogs can detect narcotics. Some dogs have even been trained to sniff out certain cancers or bacteria.
Schneider said he has trained 13 COVID-sniffing dogs so far to identify viral particles, using a special, secret scent source.
“To the dogs, this is playing the best game they know, all day long,” Schneider said. “They have to run around and find the scent that they have been trained to find and when they find it, they alert ... and then they are rewarded by getting playtime with a toy.”
According to Schneider, in small studies he’s conducted, the dogs have correctly identified a mask or item of clothing worn by someone with a positive COVID-19 PCR test between 98 and 99% percent of the time.
Mike Larkin, who works with Global K9 Protection Group, another canine training and security company, has had similar success. The NBA team the Miami Heat uses Larkin’s dogs to screen fans at its games. Using the dogs is cheaper than using a rapid test on every fan, according to Larkin, but he stressed that the dogs are not designed to replace testing, mask-wearing or social distancing.
“You’re deploying a dog to use them as a mobile, bio-detection, sensory tool that can work very quickly and efficiently," Larkin said. "And you’re doing that for initial screening and triage.”
NASCAR said it may use the dogs again at future races — meaning Dixie the black Lab could be at the Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Coca-Cola 600 in May.