Can dogs be trained to sniff out COVID-19 in patients?

University of Pennsylvania veterinary school tests coronavirus patient samples.

Dogs have been trained to effectively sniff out an array of complexities from cancer to blood sugar levels in diabetics, and now one program is hoping to apply the practice to detect coronavirus.

The University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine has a new program to see if dogs can detect the current strain of the coronavirus.

"We're starting to look to see if dogs can detect an odor associated with COVID-19," Dr. Cynthia Otto told ABC News. "I like to think about dogs as seeing the world through their noses."

The school said the dogs are currently learning how to identify different smells and begin by sniffing out an odor to get a treat.

After a successful first training period, the dogs will then begin to use samples from patients who have tested both positive and negative for COVID-19.

"What we're trying to do is find if there is an odor of volatile organic compound basically, that is telling us that there is a difference," Otto explained. "What we're hoping is that the dogs can figure that out."

Their hope is that the doctors at Penn can then train the dogs to help sniff out the disease in people.

"It might be that a company wants to bring their workers back, but don't want to bring anybody that might be positive. So we might have them walk by the dogs and the dog would let us know if there was somebody that was positive," she explained.

If the testing and training is successful, the dogs would not replace a regular COVID-19 test.

"I think right now it's complimentary. We really have to take this as a multi-pronged approach to limit the spread of this disease," Otto said.

This report was featured in the Thursday, May 7, 2020, episode of “Start Here,” ABC News’ daily news podcast.

"Start Here" offers a straightforward look at the day's top stories in 20 minutes. Listen for free every weekday on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, the ABC News app or wherever you get your podcasts.

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