Scarlett, a three-year-old yellow labrador and medical detection dog along with her canine coworker Rizzo were working their tails off and making friends recently at Park Bridge Rehabilitation & Wellness as part of a pilot program that uses dogs to help identify COVID-19.

“We were excited to partner with Early Alert Canines (EAC) for this pilot and our residents and staff loved the opportunity to pet and socialize with Scarlett and Rizzo after the testing,” said Luzviminda (Ada) Lukban, associate administrator at Park Bridge Rehabilitation & Wellness. “The great news is no cases were identified.”

The 28 Park Bridge residents and staff members who participated were pre-screened to ensure they were not allergic to or afraid of dogs. In addition, Scarlett and Rizzo were accompanied by a team to administer a COVID-19 antigen test if needed.

The dynamic canine duo are trained to sniff near an individual’s feet, ankles or lower leg area. If they locate the COVID-19 scent, Scarlett and Rizzo will alert their handler by quickly sitting down or using other similar behavior to communicate the detection of the odor.

According to EAC, these exceptional yellow labs use their noses to detect the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) associated with COVID-19. A dog’s sense of smell is estimated to be 10,000 to 100,000 times better than that of humans and Scarlett and Rizzo have undergone rigorous training with an average accuracy detection rate of 94%.

In 2021 the EAC partnered with the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) in a program to train and deploy COVID-19 detection dogs in Bay Area schools and are now moving into the next phase to explore the full potential of medical detection dogs with a focus on vulnerable populations in skilled nursing facilities (SNFs).

While the cost to train each dog is about $50,000 and can take up to a year, the program provides effective surveillance and outbreak response at no cost. In addition to their high accuracy, one of the advantages the dogs bring is speed. They can test approximately 300 people in 30 minutes.

At Park Bridge the greatest reward was the pure joy Scarlett and Rizzo brought to the residents and staff. According to Richard Espinoza, chief administrative officer, post-acute services, AHS is looking to expand the program to other SNFs in the future. “It’s wonderful to collaborate with community organizations keeping our congregate settings safe in unique, interesting and fun ways,” he shared.

For more information including volunteer opportunities, visit Early Alert Canines.