COVID-19 Detector Dog Program

Our most loyal companions are quickly becoming some of our most valuable frontline health workers—and we’re excited to be playing a leading role.

The University of Adelaide is steering Australia’s groundbreaking participation in a huge international research effort: training dogs to identify COVID-19 and prevent the spread of the virus.

With one of the most advanced programs in the world, it’s safe to say our team is making fantastic progress. Specially trained dogs are now able to identify positive COVID-19 cases faster, earlier and more reliably than any rapid antigen test currently used worldwide. Their use as a fast and mobile screening tool—at borders, events, and healthcare facilities—offers enormous potential benefits: more families and friends reunited, more businesses kept afloat, and more lives saved.

What's the latest?

Four dogs have now been deployed in a pilot study at Lyell McEwin Hospital in Adelaide’s northern suburbs. They’re putting their skills to the test in a busy real-world environment, surrounded by new smells and disease-related distractions. The dogs and their handlers are working two at a time in the Emergency Department, identifying COVID positive visitors entering the hospital. During triage, patients and visitors can choose to be screened by the dogs as part of the existing COVID testing process. Each dog has the capacity to inspect up to 100 people per hour. 

Next steps

The dogs will be taking part in the Lyell McEwin Hospital study for six weeks. If things go as planned and the sniffer squad keep diagnosing reliably, they will be recognised as ready for deployment anywhere! You could be meeting them in other hospitals, aged care settings and even schools in the very near future. 

Training scalability breakthrough  

The University team has led efforts to upscale global training capacity. In a world first—and with support from Institut Pasteur, France—we’ve developed a surrogate scent which mimics the odour of COVID-19 positive patients, creating a new, highly scalable training process. The dogs are reliably using this training aid, going from synthetic to real samples instantly.

‘I think it’s a revolution.’Dr Anne-Lise Chaber, Project Lead


Breakthrough makes COVID dogs training program scalable worldwide

Project timeline

Studies show dogs can detect odours, known as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), produced by the human body’s response to viral infections

14 dogs begin training at the University of Adelaide

First research results published

Six dogs commence real-world trials at Adelaide Airport

Airport trials yield paw-sitive results, but relying on sweat samples to train the dogs is too time consuming to scale up the program.

Surrogate scent and training aid developedSurrogate scent and training aid developed, drastically improving program scalability.

Four dogs commence trials at Lyell McEwin Hospital.

Meet the team

Detector Dog Quake

Quake, age 2.5, Labrador.

Commenced training in 2020 and currently deployed at Lyell McEwin Hospital. 

Covid detector dog, labrador, Stan.

Stan, age 2.5, Labrador.

Commenced training in 2020 and currently deployed at Lyell McEwin Hospital. 

Covid detector dog, labrador, Ned.

Ned, age 1, Labrador.

Commenced training in 2022 and currently deployed at Lyell McEwin Hospital. 

Covid dog - Stoffle

Stoffle, age 2, Labrador.

Commenced training 2022 and currently deployed at Lyell McEwin Hospital.

Covid detector dog, labrador, Gizmo.

Gizmo, age 2, Labrador.

Commenced training in 2022. 

Covid detector dog, labrador, Xindi.

Xindi, age 1, Labrador.

Commenced training in 2022. 

Covid detector dog, labrador, Tarlii.

Tarlii, age 1, Labrador.

Commenced training in 2022. 

Colleagues unlike any others 

Our researchers and trainers work closely with the dogs each day, building strong bonds and learning all about their temperaments, interests and quirks.  It’s a unique workplace, filled with treats, games, cuddles—and the odd surprise COVID-19 diagnosis! 

So, are our COVID dogs as loveable as they look?

When COVID dogs diagnose their own trainers

Student's amazing experience training COVID dogs

Like to help?

Frequently asked questions

  • If a dog indicates that I have COVID-19, should I get a COVID-19 test?

    If a dog does detect the virus from your sweat sample, we strongly recommend that you undergo a COVID-19 test to confirm the diagnosis.

  • Does COVID-19 actually have a smell?

    COVID-19 detector dogs do not detect the virus itself; they search for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that the body produces when affected by the virus. 

    These VOCs can be detected even when someone has no symptoms, or the disease is still in the incubation phase. The traditional nose and throat swab cannot detect COVID-19 during the incubation phase.

    The dogs will not be misled if you are infected by the flu, the common cold or another virus.

  • How do you train a dog to identify COVID-19?

    Training a dog to detect COVID-19 is similar to training them to detect explosives.

    A dog is exposed to many human sweat samples with variable strains of the virus, taken from different people with differing symptoms. The dogs are initially rewarded when they sniff the sample. The dogs are then challenged with sweat samples from both people infected with COVID-19 and people without the virus. 

    Training can take six to eight weeks for a dog that is already trained to detect other scents, or three to six months for a dog that has not received training in detection. Throughout training we only provide positive reinforcements.

  • What encourages the dogs to detect COVID-19?

    The dogs are encouraged by positive rewards such as treats and encouragement from their handlers. The dogs see the detection process as a fun game of hide-and-seek, and get a treat when they find the positive sample. If a positive sample is not detected, the dog does not receive a reward and has another try. Dogs in double-blind testing have shown exceptional accuracy.

  • How are the dogs treated?

    The detector dogs are well looked after, kept in peak condition, well exercised and nutritiously fed. They live with their handlers and are brought in on workdays. Work rooms are kept at a comfortable temperature and humidity for the dogs. If conditions are deemed too hot or cold, the dogs are given a rest day.

  • What type of dog can become a COVID-19 detector dog?

    Dogs are specially selected for the program, and not all dogs are suited to this type of detection. Suitability depends on the dog having the confidence to make decisions and maintain that decision, their ability to learn, and consistency of results. A majority of our dogs are Labradors.

  • Can I train my dog to detect COVID-19?

    No. Teaching a dog to detect COVID-19 requires the expertise of professional dog handlers and access to lots of positive and negative samples of the disease.

  • Why aren’t the dogs already being used at airports, schools and businesses?

    COVID-19 detectors dogs are already being used at borders and in communities in the United Arab Emirates. Dogs have also been deployed in communities within France. 15 more countries have dogs in training.

    In Australia, we are now liaising with the health authorities to run deployment trials in public spaces. Because this is a new screening tool, the process needs to be studied and robustly tested before public health authorities embrace and accept the use of dogs to screen for disease in populations. 

  • Can dogs become infected by COVID-19?

    Dogs replicate the virus very poorly, and are not considered to be a susceptible species. Unfortunately, cats are the opposite.

  • What other illnesses can a dog detect?

    There is growing evidence that dogs can be used to screen people for infectious diseases.

    To date, 35 research studies have used dogs to detect different types of cancer. Another study used dogs to detect Clostridium difficile – a deadly bacteria - during a hospital outbreak; and a further project used dogs to detect urinary tract infections.

    These studies highlight the potential for using trained dogs to screen large numbers of people for diseases such as COVID-19.

Latest news and updates

Lab report: COVID detector dogs start trials at Adelaide Airport

Six dogs have commenced research trials at Adelaide Airport to determine the feasibility of deploying dogs to detect COVID-19.

COVID testing: Use a Labrador instead of a laboratory

Dogs are being trained to detect COVID-19. And it turns out they’re pretty good at it.

COVID-19 detector dog research and trials underway

14 dogs have begun their training as COVID-19 detector dogs.

How do dogs smell COVID-19?

How detector dogs are being trained to sniff out traces of COVID-19.

Lab trials: Sniffer dogs training to detect COVID-19

University of Adelaide researchers are working with international partners to train sniffer dogs to detect COVID-19 infection.

How far away can dogs smell and hear?

How far away can dogs smell and hear? Animal behaviour expert Dr Susan Hazel has the answer.