Pet care brand Bark enlists COVID-sniffing dogs to bring employees back to the office
As companies continue to delay return to office plans, many with no concrete return date in sight, pet care brand Bark is transitioning employees back to its flagship New York office—with the help of its best customers. The company announced this week that it will be bringing in COVID-sniffing beagles as a pilot program to encourage more employees to gather together, many seeing each other for the first time in 18 months.
A recent study of American dog parents from Bark revealed how their relationships with their dogs have evolved during the pandemic, as well as their feelings about returning to the office, and what barriers exist when it comes to bringing their dogs to the office. At least one in three respondents said they would be less stressed at work if they had their dog with them. And many office workers who added new pets to their families during lockdown will also be stressed with figuring out daily care for the first time.
The dogs were trained by BioScent, an organization that trains medical scent-detection beagles, in conjunction with the Florida International University (FIU) Detection Dog Program. When fully trained, the dogs are able to sniff out a positive case with 98% accuracy—a better rate than most COVID-19 PCR or antigen tests.
“The idea is that as people are returning back to work, you do a screening of everyone as they come in,” says Kenneth G. Furton, provost, executive vice president, and chief operating officer for Florida International University. “It’s a nice deterrent for businesses because if you know you’re going to be greeted by a dog, you may not want to go to that concert if you’re not feeling well and you don’t want to be embarrassed in front of your friends and return home because it turns out you have COVID.”
Executives from both BioScent and FIU were onsite at Bark’s offices in New York City this week to demonstrate the dogs in action. (Notably, no one onsite tested positive for COVID-19, according to the two beagles: Noel and Buddy.) The test is so simple you might not even realize it’s in action until it’s over—and it’s certainly more pleasant than a nasal or throat swab. Quite simply, the dogs walk up to you. If you’re positive, they sit. If you’re negative, they just keep walking.
FIU’s canine detection team program launched in 1998 with accelerant detector dogs to identify evidence at fire investigations. This research and training expanded to include currency, drugs, explosives, human scent, biologicals (such as mold and fungi), and most recently COVID-19.
“When COVID-19 first became an issue, we decided to retrain these dogs,” Furton tells Fortune. “I was actually shocked to find out that, on average, we had about a 98% accuracy rate, which is even better than most PCR tests.”
The team started with two dogs, then two more, and then did a double-blind study in detecting how accurate they actually were in using breath samples (face coverings from a local hospital that were COVID-positive and COVID-negative). The dogs are able to pick up the volatile organic compounds that are given off and used to track COVID-19, before it even shows up on a PCR test and for many days thereafter.
Beagles were chosen for this assignment for a number of reasons, starting with the fact they have the third most number of olfactory nerves among dog breeds. Bloodhounds have the most, but they’re very big and can be hard to work with. Basset hounds have the second most, but they have no work ethic. (“They have great noses and want you to rub their bellies all day long,” says BioScent CEO and founder Heather Junqueira.) Recently, BioScent has crossed beagles with basset hounds (coined “Bagels”). “It’s a bit of an experiment,” she says. “We’re going to see if we can get that drive of the beagle with the nose of the basset.”
Beagles are also not very intimidating. “Law enforcement likes to use Belgian malinois, German shepherds—some people are nervous around large dogs like that,” Furton notes. “How do you not love a beagle?”
Beagles also love to train, Junqueira adds. “It’s a game for them. Everything with scent-detection, it’s a game of hide-and-seek. They don’t feel like they’re working.” Beagles start training for medical scent-detection while still in puppyhood, and can be deployed as working dogs at as young as one-year-old.
From that initial study done in a controlled study, FIU moved on to a pilot program at Miami International Airport as well as some concerts and events in Pinecrest, an affluent suburb in Miami-Dade County, but on a very limited basis.
Currently, there is no national certification for using dogs to test for COVID-19 in the same manner as a PCR or antigen test. So you can’t simply walk up to the trained dogs and expect to use that result for any kind of event that requires a printed copy of a negative test result. For now, it’s more of a fail-safe test. For example, airlines could have these dogs stationed at the gate before boarding as one last test while everyone walks single-file to the aircraft. If the dog sits, indicating a positive result, that person can be immediately escorted away from the queue to then take a rapid PCR test to confirm.
“We’re working with airport authorities and the CDC to determine validating the protocols so that when we deploy them, we can make sure we’re not unduly slowing down the egress of the passengers,” Furton says. Right now, that includes a test site for American Airlines with one checkpoint setup for employees only; the same model follows: if a dog indicates a positive test, the employee is sent home until results come in from a PCR test.
The next stage will be to determine how the dogs can be deployed to sniff out other infectious diseases. “We’re underutilizing canines,” Furton says, “It’s up your imagination. You can train a dog to learn almost any odor.”
BioScent has already done studies on dogs learning to detect scents related to cancer, specifically lung and breast cancers, based on blood samples.
“Pretty much any disease has an odor,” Junqueira says, noting the dogs had a very high success rate in a controlled setting. “The idea with the cancer [studies] were not to have a dog as a detection device for cancer but to figure out what they’re smelling so we can create a better test for early detection.”
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