The Bristol County Sheriff’s Office announced this week it’s trained dogs to sniff out Covid at its jails in Dartmouth and New Bedford. 

Captain Paul Douglas said he’s been training dogs named Huntah and Duke for nine weeks with masks used by local Covid patients. Douglas said Huntah sits when she smells even a trace of coronavirus on an empty surface.

Huntah will soon be patrolling the jail to identify rooms in need of deep cleaning. 

“We will not be doing people searches,” Douglas said. “That’s not the goal. It’s a decontamination tool. It’s not to diagnose Covid or say that any individual has Covid.”

Sheriff Thomas Hodgson said his team followed guidance from Florida International University, which is home to one of several American research groups studying the ability of dogs to detect Covid.

Dr. Kenneth Furton, an analytical chemist there, said early studies show dogs are identifying Covid with greater accuracy in trial settings than drugs or explosives, which they’ve been trusted to find for decades. 

“With these dogs, we're consistently seeing over 95% accuracy,” he said. “So in many cases, they're actually more accurate than even PCR in that regard.”

Still, Furton says it’s not clear what exactly they’re smelling: the virus itself, or a unique organic compound the body creates to fight the virus. 

In September, the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office will be sending Huntah and another dog, Duke, to Florida International University to participate in a study. 

A superintendent at the jail said the dogs will eventually be retrained to search for missing people. They’re also available for use by other first responders on the South Coast. 

Ben Berke is the South Coast Bureau Reporter for The Public’s Radio. He can be reached at bberke@thepublicsradio.org.