Buffy the COVID-Detecting Dog Brings Safety and Smiles to Florida Hospital: 'She's Our Mascot'
Buffy, a Labrador retriever, is trained to detect the smell the human body gives off when it is fighting COVID-19, and the dog has brought her skills to the Doctors Hospital of Sarasota in Florida
A Florida hospital has a new four-legged tool in the fight against the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Newly-employed Buffy is a two-year-old Labrador retriever trained to greet visitors to the Doctors Hospital of Sarasota and sniff them for COVID-19.
"It's a distinct smell. The body's response to us fighting off COVID is what the dogs are reacting to," explains Buffy's trainer Laska Parrow.
Parrow works at Southeastern Guide Dogs, a 33-acre non-profit facility known for training service canines free of charge for the visually impaired and veterans with PTSD. Buffy and three of her pup friends "failed" out of Southeastern's service dog training program because they kept getting distracted by smells.
"The COVID detection was another career option for them. They could use their distract-ability for a good purpose," Parrow tells PEOPLE.
The idea came about because Bob Meade serves as both a board member for the non-profit and is the CEO of the Doctors Hospital of Sarasota.
"We had the first positive patient in the state of Florida last February, so when I got a call from the head of Southeastern last summer that they were thinking of training the dogs, I thought it was a great idea. I believe we're the only hospital in the country using a COVID sniffing dog," Meade says.
Labrador retrievers have an estimated 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses — humans have about six million. Parrow spent nine months training Buffy to pick up on different smells until the Lab was ready to work with deactivated COVID saliva samples. At the end of COVID training, Buffy and the other dogs in her "class" were approximately 95% effective at detecting COVID-19 on a person.
During Buffy's second day on the job at the hospital, she showed off these detection skills. After sniffing a female guest, Buffy laid down at a woman's feet to indicate that she detected COVID-19. After the Lab's signal, the guest took a COVID test at the hospital's ER that came back positive.
"It's amazing. It really is. I think it's a lot less intimidating for people to get sniffed by a dog than to be approached by someone with a face mask coming at you. You can see the stress just come off people when they're around her," Parrow says of Buffy's people skills.
The hospital's CEO agrees. Meade helps with Buffy's continued training, both at the hospital and at home. He adopted Buffy, and she now lives with the Meade family when she is not at the hospital.
"We have deactivated samples in the freezer in the garage so that we keep her on top of her game," Meade says of the pooch's at-home training, adding that Buffy's job at the hospital is more than just sniffing.
"She's become our mascot at the hospital. Everybody loves Buffy. It's nice for the employees. They've been through a lot in the last year. Having Buffy is therapy for all of us."
As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from the CDC, WHO and local public health departments. PEOPLE has partnered with GoFundMe to raise money for the COVID-19 Relief Fund, a GoFundMe.org fundraiser to support everything from frontline responders to families in need, as well as organizations helping communities. For more information or to donate, click here.