In France, dogs are sniffing out whether people have Covid-19
Testing people for coronavirus using a dog such as Pokaa is faster and also less expensive than using other tests. Philipp von Ditfurth/dpa

Watching golden retriever Pokaa sniffing away might make you think that Covid-19 smells good.

The smell of the sweat of someone infected with the coronavirus seems to have a magical draw for the dog.

Without hesitating, he sits down in front of a metal box that contains a sample from someone who tested positive for the virus and just keeps on nudging it with his nose.

Pokaa's trainers say he is the first sniffer dog working as a specialist in the coronavirus in France.

The 2-year-old dog is stationed at a home for the elderly in Alsace, close to the German border, to help detect infections in the facility quickly and reliably.

He may also wind up working at German old people's homes too.

The sniffer dog method was developed with EnvA, a veterinary university near Paris. People who are being tested for the virus press a cotton cloth under their armpits for a period of time.

The cloths are then placed in separate metal boxes that have holes punched in them.

Pokaa walks past the row of boxes, sensing whether he can identify the smell of the spike protein in the coronavirus.

He sits down in front of one box that contains someone's sweat who is infected with the virus. He nudges it with his nose.

Dogs can detect whether people are infected with the virus, thanks to their excellent sense of smell. Researchers at Germany's University of Veterinary Medicine recently published a study that found sniffer dogs detect whether people had the coronavirus in 91 per cent of cases, using sweat samples.

They also rarely incorrectly indicated that someone did have the coronavirus when the person tested negative. Using urine samples produced even clearer results.

A British study has also indicated promising outcomes.

Dogs also used their skills in a similar project in Helsinki. People could volunteer to be "tested" by eight sniffer dogs, who assessed clothing that the people had rubbed on their skin first.

"In the middle of the pandemic, that was something that gave people hope and joy," said Susanna Paavilainen, of the Nose Academy, which deployed the dogs at the airport. While the pilot project is over, many hope that dogs could lend their support at Finland's borders.

Hopes are also high for Pokaa, who scored a 100-per-cent hit rate at the La Roseliere old people's home, says Pokaa's trainer, Christelle Schreiber.

Pokaa may even have managed to sniff out the infection earlier than it was identified by PCR tests, after he identified a sample for someone who was thought not to have the virus. Another PCR test then found that the person did have the virus after all. "When we saw that he just wasn't wrong, we thought 'wow,'" says Schreiber.

Pokaa will soon be regularly testing the more than 200 residents and staff at the home.

Schreiber had previously accompanied Pokaa during the dog's four-week training course close to Paris.

He was initially given synthetically made spike protein to train his nose to get used to the smell. Trainers gradually reduced the quantities and switched over to using real sweat samples instead.

The residents at the Kunheim home for the elderly are excited about the new possibilities that using Pokaa opens up - after all, it means they won't need to undergo nasal swabs any more.

Those tests are particularly distressing for those with dementia, who often have to be held down by several staff members. For those patients, it feels like a violent and invasive procedure, says home manager Robert Kohler.

Testing people using a dog is faster and also less expensive than using other tests.

It costs 3,500 euros to train the dogs, which soon pays off when the cost of tests and the number needed are taken into consideration.

Kohler is also president of the Handi'Chiens association, which trains dogs to work with the elderly and sick - where Pokaa started out. Now the aim is to train as many dogs as possible to identify people who are infected with Covid-19.

"Our dogs will save lives," Kohler says with conviction.

Now, requests have gone out for the government to back the project with some financial support.

So far, 250 Handi'Chiens dogs are already at work in homes and hospitals, and Kohler wants them all to complete the additional Covid-19 training so people can be tested on a larger scale.

After all, one dog is enough for regular tests in up to 10 homes, says Kohler. Then, after the pandemic is finally over, the dogs can learn how to sniff out other sicknesses, she says.

Golden retriever Pokaa is the first sniffer dog working as a specialist in the coronavirus in France, according to his trainers. Philipp von Ditfurth/dpa
Dogs like Pokaa can detect whether people are infected with the virus, thanks to their excellent sense of smell. They just need some extra training to detect it as well as tests. Philipp von Ditfurth/dpa
Watching golden retriever Pokaa sniffing away might make you think that Covid-19 smells good: The smell of the sweat of someone infected with the coronavirus seems to have a magical draw for the dog. Philipp von Ditfurth/dpa
Christelle Schreiber kneels next to Pokaa, the first dog in France being used to sniff out Covid-19, according to the dog trainer. Pokaa has been specially trained to sniff it out. Philipp von Ditfurth/dpa