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Montessori School Uses COVID Detection Dogs to Stay Healthy

When Dr. Cindy Acker, founder and principal of The Child Unique Montessori School (TCU), learned about COVID-19-detecting canines at an Alameda Chamber of Commerce event, she was intrigued. “We learned about early canine detection at the mixer through a demonstration from Early Alert Canines,” she told the Alameda Post. “I fell in love with Scarlett [a yellow Labrador with the nonprofit group]. And we were fascinated by the accuracy.”

Alameda Post - a yellow lab who works as a COVID-detection dog sits in a school hallway
Scarlett the COVID detection dog. Photo Kelsey Goeres.

On Monday morning, January 22, the curbs surrounding the West Side school gushed with water. As rain poured, two sunshine yellow Labs, Scarlett and Rizzo, excitedly greeted each other, eager to get to work. Before the students entered the testing hallway, the dogs’ handlers, Alysia Santos and Annie Schemal, ran through a few practice rounds. Santos and Schemal had hidden socks worn by COVID-infected individuals in their boots to make sure Scarlett and Rizzo were on their A-game. With each line-up, the two dogs were able to detect who had the COVID-infected socks stuffed in their shoes by sniffing for volatile organic compounds associated with COVID-19 infections. Volatile organic compounds can best be detected in the armpits, groin, and feet, so Early Alert Canines are trained to smell the feet of the people they’re testing.

The children entered the brightly lit hallway where the dogs awaited them with giggles of anticipation. Surely, this was not the attitude past routine swab tests had aroused. On the floor, green sticky notes spaced evenly apart marked spots behind which the children were to stand. One dog would go down the line, quickly sniffing the shoes of each child. Then the second dog would do the same. At the end of the quick process, the kids were given the OK to pet the dogs if they wanted. It was a surprisingly fast, organized, and seemingly delightful process.

Alameda Post - a yellow lab sniffs the shoes of people standing in a hallways
COVID detection dogs are trained to sniff out volatile organic compounds on feet. Photo Kelsey Goeres.

Acker says “prevention is the goal” for this new weekly practice. “We found before, when COVID numbers had risen, that when we tested each week, we were able to catch it before an outbreak,” she said. “We would catch somebody and send them home. So we knew that that worked. And once we discovered something that wasn’t an invasive procedure but was just as accurate, we wanted to go for that.”

This particular Monday was the third time that Scarlett and Rizzo visited TCU. Students have the choice to opt out of the dog line-up and test at home, Acker said. Among those who participate, if the dogs did detect a questionable scent in the socks of a child, “We would test that student separately with a swab test, and the rest of the students would not be around,” Acker said. “Then we would contact the parents or guardians.”

Early Alert Canines specializes in training medical detection dogs with an emphasis in Diabetic Alert Dogs. But in the midst of the COVID pandemic, the nonprofit partnered with the California Department of Public Health to collaborate on an innovative pilot program aimed at training dogs to detect potential COVID infections. Detection Dog accuracy is comparable to the accuracy of antigen tests, said handler Santos. But experts suggest the dogs are “as effective and often more effective” than both antigen and PCR tests. What’s more, the dog method of testing is non-intrusive as well as eco-friendly.

Alameda Post - a COVID detection dog sniffs the feet of students and staff
COVID detection dogs make for an easy and non-intrusive health protocol. Photo Kelsey Goeres.

TCU implemented the program as an “extra layer of protection against the rapid rise of COVID-19 in California,” according to a school press release. The release noted that leadership behind the community-oriented school believes “investing in cutting-edge technology and methodologies for health and safety not only protects the school community but contributes to the well-being of the broader community.”

Dr. Acker is no stranger to health and safety work. “I created a protocol for California Contagious Diseases a long time ago when people were afraid of HIV,” she said. Back then, she also focused on preventative measures that allowed people to live fuller, less stressful lives.

“I think there are these two different camps that people are in right now,” she said of the 2024 COVID landscape. “They either don’t want to have anything to do with thinking about COVID or they’re still really freaked out. But if you just do all the preventative stuff, you don’t have to be so afraid of it.”

Kelsey Goeres is a contributing writer for the Alameda Post. Contact her via [email protected]. Her writing is collected at

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