Sit, Stay, Sniff: New Device Could Train Dogs to Detect Disease in Humans

An AI-powered device is training dogs to sniff out disease, which may also help large-scale efforts in reopening the world economy.

By Michael Belfiore, Contributor

A diabetic man collapses in a New York City hotel room. But the guide dog he’s fostering licks and nudges him repeatedly, keeping him from passing out. Finally, the dog rouses him enough so he can inject himself with glucose and recover.

It was that experience, in 2000, that led the man, forensic scientist Mark Ruefenacht, to found Dogs for Diabetics (D4D) in the San Francisco Bay area four years later.

These days, D4D-trained dogs help diabetics get assistance or emergency supplies when they need it, detecting drops and spikes in blood sugar before their human companions. It’s all thanks to their keen sense of smell. “We’ve trained over 200 dogs now for diabetes, and I’ve also worked with a half-dozen or so organizations around the world to help them start diabetes programs,” Ruefenacht says.

Now, driven by the pandemic, the organization is expanding its work to include sniffing out other illnesses, including COVID-19. Experts say it just might work, especially with the help of a high-tech ally.

Medical Detection Dogs

“The canine sense of smell is up to 100,000 times greater than that of humans,” says Peter C. Belafsky, professor of Medicine and Epidemiology at the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. “It is only natural that we train them to detect the volatile organic compounds associated with COVID-19.” In other words, dogs should be able to smell the otherwise-undetectable odors emitted by people who have become infected with coronavirus.

“The canine sense of smell is up to 100,000 times greater than that of humans. It is only natural that we train them to detect the volatile organic compounds associated with COVID-19.”

—Peter C. Belafsky, professor of Medicine and Epidemiology, University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine

Maria Goodavage, author of Doctor Dogs: How Our Best Friends Are Becoming Our Best Medicine published in October 2019, is similarly enthusiastic about the potential ability of dogs to detect the coronavirus. “Their noses are so sensitive that some of the trained pet dogs who enjoy the ‘detection game’ at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center at the University of Pennsylvania can detect ovarian cancer in a single drop of plasma,” she says. “In my book, I brought up the idea that dogs might be able to help in epidemics or pandemics. I had no idea we would be facing a pandemic so soon.”

In June 2020, D4D changed its name to the National Institute of Canine Service and Training (NICST) to reflect its broader focus. And it has since partnered with startup Companion Labs, also based in Silicon Valley, to train dogs in a range of behaviors using an artificial intelligence (AI)-powered device that doesn’t require the presence of humans.

Artificial Companion

“How do you train 100,000 dogs so that you could put one in every business in America or every school in America?” asks Companion Labs founder and CEO John Honchariw. The answer, he says, is an unassuming box made by his company called CompanionPro.

Photo by Yellow Neener Photography

The CompanionPro device stands just a couple feet tall and looks like a small, white garden hose box. A camera, an AI processor, a treat dispenser, a microphone, and speakers allow the device to see and communicate with the dog and dispense treats at the appropriate times. “The animal quickly learns that it is actually controlling the machine,” Honchariw explains. “Every time the dog sits or every time the dog looks at the machine, it’s getting a reward. So, all of a sudden, you see an explosion of that behavior.”

The device trains dogs more quickly and more affordably than human trainers, according to Honchariw. That’s because it works tirelessly, and, thanks to the onboard AI chip (created by Google as part of a project called Coral), the machine spots learned behaviors instantly, every time.

The aim isn’t to replace human trainers, Honchariw says, just to provide more opportunities to train dogs for more people. The device, he says, could also train medical detection dogs at a scale that wouldn’t be possible with human trainers alone.

Sniffing Out Disease at Scale

Health experts say that a full reopening of the world economy after COVID-19-imposed lockdowns will require large-scale detection of symptoms and testing. Medical detection dogs have the potential to carry out both functions in real time, with dogs smelling disease and then alerting handlers right away.

That’s the way bomb- and drug-sniffing dogs operate, and Ruefenacht and others working on the problem see no reason they can’t work to smell out disease, just the way D4D-trained dogs alert their human companions to changes in blood sugar levels.

Ruefenacht says he and the team are not far from determining whether dogs can indeed smell COVID-19. In addition to Companion Labs, they’ve partnered with a Silicon Valley medical-testing laboratory to get samples on which to test the idea. They’ll work first with rats, which have similar olfactory abilities as dogs, to avoid unnecessarily exposing dogs to the virus.

After demonstrating that rats can smell infections, the team will move to dogs and hand-train the first group to alert handlers to its presence. From there, they plan to train dogs in large numbers with the help of CompanionPro.

“If we have 100,000 dogs ready by this winter, I think it could be game-changing.”

—John Honchariw, founder and CEO, Companion Labs

If all goes well, say Ruefenacht and Honchariw, the devices could be training dogs to sniff out coronavirus infections within a year. Partnerships with government agencies that already work with dogs, take the Transportation Security Administration for example, could accelerate the process.

In the best-case scenario, the NICST and Companion Labs teams envision a near-future in which service dogs protect stadiums, office buildings, airports, and other places where large numbers of people gather, allowing them to open sooner, with more people. “Even the 15-minute tests still require you to spend real money in real time doing that test, as opposed to hundreds of people walking by a dog in that same 15 minutes,” says Honchariw. “If we have 100,000 dogs ready by this winter, I think it could be game-changing.”