Penn Researchers Need Your Sweaty T-Shirts to Train Their COVID-Sniffing Dogs

Why should dogs stop at sniffing bombs? At Penn, canines are on the hunt for the coronavirus, and they need your help.

covid-sniffing dogs

One of Penn’s COVID-sniffing dogs, Poncho. Photograph by Pat Nolan

Now that the New York Times reports the unfortunate news that the United States is unlikely to ever reach herd immunity against the coronavirus, it looks like there will be a market for COVID tests for a long time yet.

There are, of course, already a number of different ways to get COVID-tested — from the invasive nasal swabs that taught us our nostrils are much deeper than we ever cared to know to the less invasive (albeit no less awkward) spit test.

But what if there were a better way? Penn’s Working Dog Center is on the task. There, the Inquirer reports, a team of dogs — mostly made up Labradors, like the yellow Lab, Poncho, pictured above — is, well, doggedly learning how to detect the virus using nothing but their noses. A preliminary study suggests the dogs can smell COVID — technically not the virus itself, but the minor olfactory differences between someone with the virus and without it — with up to 96 percent accuracy. And why not? Dogs can already sniff for bombs and drugs. Penn is even teaching a different team of canines how to smell cancer. (Of course even the dogs at Penn are overachievers.)

Here’s where you come in: The Penn researchers are seeking volunteers to wear a cotton t-shirt for a day, get it nice and sweaty and smelly, and then send it back. They’re specifically looking for people who have been tested for the virus in the past two days or who will be getting tested soon. That way, the scientists will know from the test results who’s positive for COVID-19 and who’s not, and they can expose the scents to the canines accordingly. (Per the Inquirer, the dogs are asked to smell a mix of scents: one COVID shirt, four regular sweaty shirts, and a few other non-human scents. If they want to earn a treat, they have to pick the right one.)

If you participate — you can register to volunteer here — Penn will ship you a cotton shirt to wear, along with a return label. Alas, you won’t get to keep the shirt. But you may just help create a new profession for the working dogs of the world. Bark twice for job creation!