Scarlett and Rizzo are part of Early Alert Canines’ COVID-19 testing team. Photo courtesy of Early Alert Canines

Dog may be man’s best friend, but he is quickly becoming COVID-19’s worst enemy in some lucky nursing homes. 

Scarlett and Rizzo, two yellow labrador retrievers, are an effective virus-sensing tag team when they visit long-term care facilities in Marin County. Partnering with the service dog training organization Early Alert Canines, the California Department of Public Health is using the dogs as COVID testers who are a little more personable than a nasal swab.

“Dogs are trained to sniff the feet of people and do not require invasive nasal swabs. Dogs have been well received in nursing homes and the residents and staff love seeing the dogs and enjoy interacting with and petting them after they have been screened,” Early Alert Canines development director Victoria Briskin told McKnight’s Long-Term Care News in an email. “The dogs consistently encourage a positive response and reduce anxiety, including with individuals with dementia or other behavioral conditions.”

Partnered together since October 2021, the retrievers complement each other while walking the halls. Scarlett is the graceful and methodical foil to Rizzo’s energetic and fast personality. 

But don’t let their lovable appearance fool you: They’re also pretty good at their jobs. In COVID field trials, Scarlett and Rizzo are right about 80% of the time, compared to antigen tests at 81%–91% per EAC. Additionally, there are numerous benefits they provide that traditional testing alone cannot replicate. 

“The goal of this program was to prove that dogs are able to identify possible COVID-19 infections with accuracy that is similar, to or better than, rapid tests,” Briskin said. “This program was designed to alleviate some of the stress on the testing system by replacing some rapid tests, as a tool for screening. These highly trained dogs can screen exponentially more individuals than lab-based tests can in the same amount of time.” 

The primary mission of Early Alert Canines is to provide Diabetic Alert Medical Service Dogs to people with insulin-dependent diabetes, but Scarlett and Rizzo show that there are many applications for service dogs in the medical field. It’s safe to say that testing for infectious diseases has never been cuddlier.