At the AmericanAirlines Arena, in downtown Miami, eighteen hundred N.B.A. fans lined up outside Lexus Gate 5 for a K-9 inspection. Banners instructed guests how to proceed through the security line:
KEEP 6FT APART
WEAR MASKS AT ALL TIMES
DETECTION DOGS WILL NOT ATTEMPT TO TOUCH YOUR PERSON AND IN ALMOST ALL INSTANCES THERE IS NO CONTACT, ALTHOUGH IT IS POSSIBLE THAT AN INADVERTENT, MOMENTARY CONTACT COULD OCCUR
Illustration by João Fazenda
Ticket holders were unfazed; the vibe was more outside-a-night-club than T.S.A.-checkpoint, although there wasn’t any music, and a sixty-pound German shepherd named Abby paced up and down the queue. Her leash was held by Adam Davila, who spent fourteen years as an Army Ranger before training as a bomb-sniffing-dog handler. A guy wearing orange tie-dyed pants and Gucci loafers hollered to a woman ahead of him who had on a purple hoodie: “You look like a supermodel! This is like Chanel’s Presentation 2022!”
Dogs can be trained to sniff out just about anything: bedbugs and black-footed ferrets, firearms and peroxide-based explosives, gourmet fungi, toxic mold, marijuana, malaria, ovarian cancer, even contraband cell phones and child pornography. Last month, the Miami Heat announced that its detection dogs—Abby, Happy (another German shepherd), Magni (Belgian Malinois), and Tina (Dutch shepherd)—had learned to detect the coronavirus.
At around 6:30 P.M., an hour before game time, a security guard in a yellow polo welcomed a group into the K-9 screening area with an air of well-practiced authority. “The quicker we do this, the quicker we can go!” she said.
“So what’s the dog sniffing out?” a skinny man in a Knicks T-shirt asked.
“COVID,” the guard replied.
“No!” the guy said. “You’re messing with me. I thought they were sniffing for, like, guns or bombs or something.”
“If they did that, half this line wouldn’t make it inside!” the guard said, laughing.
A second guard instructed the next group. “O.K., guys, nothing in your hands!” he said. “Keep both hands to your side, facing forward, please. Nothing at all in your hands. Sir!—”
A curly-haired young man was filming the goings on with an iPhone.
“—Can you put the phone away for a quick second, please?” The man kept filming. “Sir!”
He obliged, and Magni, the Malinois, gave him a thorough sniffing—hands, legs, feet, groin. “All clear,” the dog’s handler said. The young man had just tested negative for COVID-19, according to a dog.
“The dogs don’t know what they’re looking for. Like, our COVID dogs don’t realize they’re COVID dogs,” Mike Larkin, a retired Marine Corps master gunnery sergeant, and an executive at Global K9 Protection Group, the company contracted to train the dogs, explained. “An explosive dog doesn’t know, ‘Hey, I’m looking for a bomb.’ They’re looking for an odor that they’ve been imprinted to react to, and they’re looking for their reward.” (Magni’s reward: a rainbow-colored fetch ball.) “The dog is just having fun. This is a game to them.”
Larkin went on, “Everything has a unique odor signature—a piece of plastic, a pair of Jordans, marijuana, cocaine, black powder. You can isolate the specific scent signature of an item, and then you teach the dog to find that.” Someone asked about COVID-19’s scent signature—how was it developed, what’s it called, what is it, anyway?
“So it’s proprietary,” Larkin said, apologetically. “SNIFF”—a technology company started last June by a real-estate executive from New Jersey—“designed and developed the solution.” He added, “We went the direct route of identifying the odors specific to the virus itself.”
Nearby, a woman wearing spandex leggings and a ripped jean jacket shouted, “Yay! I don’t have COVID,” and a wobbly man, who smelled of Bud Light, said, “I think this is dumb as fuck, and you can quote me on that.”
Raymond Crowley, another K-9 executive, motioned for an observer to step away from the screening area. “Come over here,” he said. “I don’t want the dogs to see what I’m doing.” He pulled an ultra-smelly sterile cotton gauze pad from his pocket and discreetly slipped it to the observer. Apparently, it smelled like COVID-19.
Following instructions, the observer joined the queue, arms by his side, smelly gauze pad in his right hand. Happy, a German shepherd, and Wayne Weseman, a retired St. Lucie County deputy sheriff, walked along the line.
Happy sniffed, sniffed again, and started wagging his tail.
“Are you sure?” Weseman asked the dog. Happy sniffed some more. “You got it? Good boy.” A security guard quietly removed the observer from the line.
Inside, the score was 97–96, with forty-seven seconds on the clock. A fireball danced on the Jumbotron, and a man holding a big cardboard cutout of Baby Yoda bellowed with something like joy. Happy paid no attention to the game. He stood on his hind legs, near Gate 5, and licked Weseman’s face. Grinning, Weseman said, “I stink like a dog!” ♦