Covid-19 Detection Dog | The Nose Knows

scent detection dog Buffy

Buffy, a scent detection dog trained at Southeastern Guide Dogs and working at Doctors Hospital of Sarasota to detect Covid-19

Buffy has been in the news lately! Here are excerpts from her press release from Doctors Hospital of Sarasota, and then below, you can find out how Buffy was trained in an article that appeared in our spring news magazine, Life Unleashed.

PRESS RELEASE – April 2021


WHO:  A new four-legged, wet-nosed addition is greeting people at Doctors Hospital of Sarasota. “Buffy” is a 2-year-old, sweet-tempered, yellow Labrador retriever and a highly trained scent detection dog from Southeastern Guide Dogs. Buffy meets visitors as they enter the hospital and if she detects COVID-19, the visitor is asked to get additional testing. Testing can be done free of charge at the hospital or if visitors prefer, another location.

WHAT: Trainers at Southeastern Guide Dogs placed “Buffy” in a scent detection study nine months ago. Using deactivated samples from COVID-19 patients at Doctors Hospital of Sarasota, Buffy was trained to detect changes in a person’s immune system. Labrador retrievers have an estimated 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, compared to about six million in humans. The dogs can detect our body fighting the virus. During training, the dogs are approximately 95% effective at detecting COVID-19 in a person.

Visitors entering the hospital will still be screened by a hospital caregiver, have their temperature taken and be required to wear a mask. Buffy is being used as an extra resource, although a very furry one, to help keep the community safe.

Buffy has had extensive onsite training at the hospital. Hospital CEO, Robert Meade, adopted Buffy and she lives with the Meade family when she is not at the hospital.

Click here to watch an amazing video on Buffy

This article appeared in the spring 2021 issue of our news magazine, Life Unleashed.

The Nose Knows

When Work Smells Like Play

Sloopy is the excited one, the one who flies down the stairs, dashing to the front door when her foster family says, “Ready to go to work?” before her trainer picks her up for another day of fun and games. Joy lives her name, jumping straight into the air when her trainer says, “Yes! Good job!” Alia is the serious one, and when she alerts, she sits low and still, methodically waiting for her reward before wagging takes over her back half. And Buffy? “She’s my on-and-off girl,” says trainer Laska Parrow. “When she’s working, she’s quiet, reserved, and focused. And when she’s not, she has an off switch: happy, wiggling, and loving her walks and adventures.”

These four Labs couldn’t be more different in personality, but they share a few traits, including the remarkable ability residing between their warm, wet noses and their super-smart brains. These dogs are the first in Southeastern Guide Dogs’ 39-year history to be trained specifically in scent detection. Laska, a certified service dog trainer and a certified associate instructor by the National Association of Canine Scent Work, heads up the initial efforts.

Dogs’ brains are uniquely wired to analyze smells. Labrador retrievers possess an estimated 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, compared to about six million in humans. Generally referred to as “sniffer dogs” or “detection dogs,” canines have been trained to detect substances such as explosives, fire accelerants, firearms, illegal drugs, human remains, wildlife, bed bugs, mold, and more. In the medical field, they’ve been trained to detect low blood sugar emergencies, cancer, neurological diseases, and more recently, COVID-19.

After much research, we plan to train our dogs to detect anxiety attacks and night terrors. Scent detection will enhance both our guide dog and service dog programs, as anxiety attacks and night terrors are often symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or trauma related to vision loss. We also are conducting a study to train dogs in COVID-19 detection, utilizing sterile samples provided by Doctors Hospital of Sarasota and proceeding with stringent safety protocols.

The program is in its infancy, and the future looks bright. “Innovation is at the heart of everything we do at Southeastern Guide Dogs, says CEO Titus Herman. “We’re excited to maximize our dogs’ incredible potential while making an even bigger difference in the lives of the people we are privileged to serve.”

How Dogs Learn Scent Detection

Sloopy, Joy, Alia, and Buffy love what they do. Every day is filled with games of hide-and-seek, treats, and praise. Their brains thrive with the challenges, and their personalities shine with a steady stream of lavish praise for a job well done.

A typical “day at the office” looks like this.

Laska, our certified scent detection trainer, uses a large “wheel” with spokes extruding from the center. At the end of each spoke are containers, and inside those containers are the most delicious smells and distractions. Milk-Bone treats, for example. Used Nylabones, scented with the saliva of other dogs. A fleece tug toy braided with rabbit fur. Used coffee grounds, hand sanitizer, and wet wipes. One of those smells is the target, and when the dog finds the target and alerts, a yummy treat and a “good girl!” complete the task. Ignoring the other aromatic temptations, the dogs learn to ferret out the target odor quickly, efficiently, and with precision.

“First, we build on the drive to hunt,” explains Laska. “Most dogs have this drive; you’ve probably seen it when dogs are looking for food that children have dropped on the floor. We hone in on that drive, and teach them to search out their reward, starting with treats hidden in containers. Then, we start pairing the odor with treats. We have them sniff the odor and reward them with a treat. Then, we have them search for the odor and still reward them with treats. So, it’s a lot like honing in on their natural ability to find food.”

Once the dogs have learned the process, specialized training will begin. Let’s say that a veteran applies for a service dog, and shares that night terrors are a pervasive struggle. Before being matched with a dog, the veteran would provide a sample of a “night terror scent”—perhaps a piece of a sweat-soaked tee shirt, one that was immediately bagged and frozen the night of the episode. That sample would become the targeted scent, the one rewarded with treats and praise. Staff would teach the dog to alert first by turning on a push-light with their nose, then nudging the human until the human responds. Then, when the veteran comes to campus to train with their new service dog, the dog will be prepared with this extra-special skill.

Terror, interrupted. A job well done.

The same process will be used to teach dogs to sniff out the distinct presence of COVID-19, or the scent of a pending anxiety attack.

As with any new venture, we’re still imagining and exploring the incredible benefits of our new scent detection program and how these dogs can impact our mission. Meanwhile, Sloopy, Joy, Alia, and Buffy are paving the way to our newest adventures of extraordinary dogs, transforming lives.

Terror, Interrupted 


Joe’s heart pounded between his ribs. His breath came in quick gasps, and in the darkness, he sensed trouble ahead.

Suddenly, the IED blast roared, debris exploding around him, the smell of smoke filling his lungs. Hot white light pierced his eyes as the searing pain ripped through his back and down his legs. Finally, the sound of his own screaming jolted him awake.

Another night terror, courtesy of Afghanistan, 2010.  


Joe’s heart pounded between his ribs. His breath came in quick gasps, and in the darkness, he sensed trouble ahead.

Suddenly, a light switched on and something damp covered his face, the smell of warm breath filling his lungs. He felt a heaviness on his chest, and dreamlike, he reached for it—only to find a steady paw. Finally, a licking Labrador nudged him awake.

 Another night terror avoided, courtesy of his service dog, sometime in 2021.

Your support provides world-class guide dogs, service dogs, and skilled companion dogs to people with vision loss, veterans with PTSD and other disabilities, and children with significant challenges such as vision loss or the loss of a parent in the military. All of our dogs are provided at no cost to the people who need them. Donate today!


Posted on May 4, 2021 | Category: Our Dogs