Covid – Detecting Dogs Visit Synergy School

Synergy School students and staff had the exciting opportunity in February to participate in research that may benefit schools all around the state of California. 

On February 14th and 28th, medical alert dogs Scarlett and Rizzo, their handlers from Early Alert Canines, and researchers from the California Department of Public Health visited Synergy School as part of a pre-pilot project to investigate if medical detection dogs trained to detect the scent of COVID-19 infections can be used to effectively screen students in a school setting. 

Over 170 students and staff volunteered to participate, giving the dogs and their handlers valuable experience working in a school setting.  Once Scarlett and Rizzo become more accustomed to working in small schools like ours, they will get a chance to visit bigger schools with more students.  The hope is that eventually, large schools in California could benefit from using trained medical alert dogs as a fast, efficient, and cost-effective way to perform an initial screening for COVID-19 infections. 

At Synergy, classrooms took turns lining up outdoors, some giggling with excitement as each dog walked by and sniffed their feet. The dogs are trained to alert their handlers by sitting briefly when they detect the target scent. Sometimes, Scarlett and Rizzo found an interesting scent but were unsure if it was the target scent. The dogs were obviously eager to play the COVID detection game and please their handlers. They got treats for staying focused and doing their job. 

Learning to be an effective COVID dog detective takes a lot of practice.  Scarlett and Rizzo, both 2-year-old yellow labradors, began training several weeks beforehand to detect the scent of people with COVID-19 infections. They worked four days a week with trainers at Early Alert Canines using a scent wheel containing socks collected from patients with COVID infections. 

After participating in the research, the children were allowed to meet the dogs and pet them if they wished. Finally, all of the participants were given a rapid antigen test to confirm and/or compare the dogs’ findings. In cases where the dogs alerted or showed particular interest in a participant, but the rapid antigen test was negative, a PCR test was given as well. At this very early stage of the project, the researchers are just beginning to understand how sensitive and accurate the dogs may be at detecting the scent of COVID-19 infections in the real world. 

Thank you to our staff and families who volunteered to help with this very unique project and to our intrepid Synergy COVID Lab Team who performed the rapid antigen testing and recorded results.

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