She’s the only COVID-19 scent detection dog currently working in a U.S. hospital. Now there’s a good girl!

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Buffy the covid sniffing dog and his handler Grace Welsby
Credit: Rick Benitez Photography / Doctors Hospital of Sarasota / Grace & Buffy

We never tire of sharing the amazing heroics of service dogs and the breadth of their abilities. So meet Buffy, a 2-year-old yellow Labrador retriever who shares not only her acute sniffing prowess but also her sweet doggie heart. 

Dogs skilled at COVID-19 scent detection keep busy, often located at major sporting events and airports. But a pilot program between Doctors Hospital of Sarasota and Southeastern Guide Dogs might make it easier to eventually control the spread of the virus.

Robert Meade is the hospital's CEO. He tells Daily Paws that in 2020, Titus Herman, CEO of Southeastern Guide Dogs, called him with the idea of training their guide dogs in COVID-19 scent detection. While nose work training or scent work comes naturally to most pups, the average pooch has 100–300 million scent receptors, and distinguishes aromas in the parts per trillion, so trained dogs can sniff out incredible possibilities. (To compare, humans have about 5–6 million receptors, so we can't smell nearly as well.) 

The two hashed out a plan, and once the legal and regulatory aspects were met, the program launched in April 2021. "Buffy was specifically selected to participate because of her keen sense of smell and her calm demeanor," Meade says. "To our knowledge, and according to published reports, Buffy is the only COVID-19 detection dog in use in a hospital in the United States."

service dog sniffing for covid in training
Through multiple weeks of comprehensive scent detection training, Buffy learned to spot COVID with approximately 95 percent accuracy.
| Credit: Chris Lake / Southeastern Guide Dogs

Training to Sniff Out COVID-19

Buffy started sharpening her nose with generalized scent samples, Meade notes, before moving on to deactivated COVID-19 samples. Then, she trained for detection indoors and outdoors, and learned how to avoid distractions at various levels. After a month, she moved on to improve accuracy with COVID detection on people, and a few weeks later, did more specific training activities with her handler, Grace Welsby, pictured above.

When visitors enter the hospital, they're asked if they'd like to be screened by Buffy and, if so, Welsby gives her the cue to 'search'. "Buffy quickly walks by the feet of the visitor. If she detects COVID-19, she lays down at the visitor's feet," Meade says. "The visitor is given the option of getting a free COVID-19 test at the hospital to confirm their status or get their own testing elsewhere." 

What Buffy detects is a chemical change in a person's immune system and if their body is fighting the virus. She's accurate about 95 percent of the time.

service dog Buffy sniffing man for covid at a hospital
It's a good day for visitors at Doctors Hospital of Sarasota no matter what, because Buffy might be in the lobby with plenty of tail wags!
| Credit: Rick Benitez Photography / Doctors Hospital of Sarasota / Grace & Buffy

"She typically works a few days a week and a few hours at a time with lots of flexibility for breaks and naps," Meade says. "There is no set number of people she can screen, and whoever comes into the hospital she is happy to greet. Buffy is an added layer of protection above what we do every day at the hospital."

However, at press time, due to the surge in COVID cases, the hospital is once again restricting most visitors to the hospital.

Providing Much Needed Stress Relief

Meade says it was a privilege to adopt Buffy and to have her at the hospital. In addition to her ability to detect COVID cases with the whiff of her nose, she's also a treasured source of pet therapy for the hospital's caregivers. "Doctors Hospital of Sarasota was the first hospital in Florida to treat a COVID-19 patient, so our caregivers have been on the front lines of the pandemic since Day One," he says. "The work is challenging, so having a happy, sweet pup to greet you has been a welcomed stress relief." He says that when Buffy isn't on duty, nurses and doctors ask where she is and when she's coming in.

Since she requires regular training to keep her sniffer in top shape, Meade keeps a canister of deactivated COVID sample in a garage refrigerator. "Several times a week, while Buffy is inside, I go outside and hide the sample in random shoes and let her search," Meade says. "She's rewarded with treats when she detects COVID-19, so she is always happy to practice."

covid sniffing dog Buffy with his owner and Sarasota-Manatee, Doctors Hospital CEO Bob Meade
Meade keeps Buffy skills sharp at home but also just loves having her as a special family pet.
| Credit: Rick Benitez Photography / Doctors Hospital of Sarasota / Grace & Buffy

In her downtime, Meade says Buffy enjoys walks around the neighborhood, playing with her toys, and being part of the family... just like any other dog, but with superpowers!

"Our family adopted another ambassador dog from Southeastern Guide Dogs named Nancy several years ago," he says. "Nancy is retired, and Buffy is just 2 years old, so Nancy sometimes gives Buffy a hard time for having to go to work—just kidding!" Ha! We can only imagine the Buffy will have an epic retirement after all her hard work helping save lives is done, hopefully many years from now.

Hats off to Buffy, her handler, and the team of medical professionals she works alongside every day. This talented dog is certainly a hero in our eyes, and for the staff and patients she helps protect and comfort every day.