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Coronavirus sniffing dogs: rapid Covid testing in the courthouse

November 12, 2020

As courts develop plans for the future of in-person proceedings, they must consider how to screen people for COVID-19 entering the courthouse. The Center for Disease Control’s General Business Frequently Asked Questions section cautions business against overreliance on temperature screening, as asymptomatic people and those with mild symptoms may pass through screening undetected.

Yale University announced a saliva test as a replacement to the invasive swab test, that would cost less and return results in 24-48 hours. This was followed by the development of a swab and saliva test in the United Kingdom that promises test results in 90 minutes. The Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis announced a new spit test that provides results within a few hours and Arizona State is working on a rapid test that would have results back in as little as 24 minutes.

As rapid as they may be, the time frames for these tests are still too long to be used as an effective screening tool for the courthouse entrance. Even the Arizona Test presents difficulties in corralling and isolating people waiting for their test results.  However, there is another, near instantaneous test that is being developed and already common around courthouses:  working dogs.

Since the 18th century Saint Bernards have been used to sniff people out of snow and rubble, and today the dogs are used to detect drugs, explosives, and people.  In 2004 in Illinois v. Caballes, the U.S. Supreme Court decided drug dog detection did not violate the Fourth Amendment, thereby allowing increased use of a trained dog’s keen sense of smell to screen people. Since then dogs have been used to sniff out cancer, Parkinson’s Disease, low blood sugar, and the super bugs that hospitals struggle to contain. Now researchers across the globe are testing a dog’s ability to detect COVID-19, including people who are asymptomatic.

The University of Pennsylvania is running a study with nine dogs. The hope is the dogs will one day be able to screen up to 250 people an hour. A UK study has similar hopes. While experts warn that if done wrong, the use of dogs could do more harm than good.  However, several studies show dogs are able to detect the virus with almost 100% accuracy. A study from University of Helsinki found dogs may be more accurate than lab testing, and a German study experienced a 94% accuracy rate.

The Dubai and Helsinki airports are rolling out coronavirus sniffing dog programs, and France has a program underway as well. In France, which has a 94.5% success rate, the dogs directly sniff individuals. Several problems with this method include exposing handlers to the virus as well as accommodating the 15% of the population that are afraid of dogs or those who have religious objections. In Helsinki, individuals are swabbed and the swab is then presented to the dogs, solving problems experienced in France. The debate over the cost effectiveness of the programs remains unsettled. The University of Pennsylvania says the program is very expensive while the Helsinki program touts the cost-effectiveness of using dogs.

For more reading on pandemic responses and dogs in the courthouse please visit NCSC’s Pandemic Resource Guide or Facility or Therapy Dogs in Courts pages.

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For more information on this or other topics impacting state courts, contact or call 800-616-6164.