Deakin Communicating Science 2016

EES 200/101

Man’s Best Friend: How they keep us Healthy

Over my past two blogs I’ve spoken about how our happy little fur friends keep us happy and healthy, and continuing on from that some dogs are being taught some amazing skills that have the ability to keep us alive. Dog’s have an incredible sense of smell, the percentage of a canine’s brain that is designated to analysing scents is 40 times bigger than that of human, this means that a dog’s ability to identify scents is between 1,000 to 100,000 times better than us humans.

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A dog’s nose can be 1,000 to 100,000 times as sensitive as humans

We know of drug detection dogs, that have the nose to locate amphetamines and other forms of illegal substances, but now dogs are being trained to use their heightened sense of smell to save lives.


Mark Ruefenacht is the founder of Dogs4Diabetics in California, and is a diabetes patient himself. The group has been training dogs to detect subtle changes in scent which are the outcome of low blood glucose and then warning the diabetic to the problem. They do this by firstly training the dogs to recognise the hypoglycaemic scent, then they are taught to differentiate that scent from other distracting and attractive scents through a number of different training exercises and games. Like most training programs the dogs are rewarded when they recognise the correct scent and act in the appropriate way. Ruefenacht does admit that like any scent-based


Chloe from Dogs4Diabetics helps Gina in immeasurable ways

training, it’s not expected to be 100% accurate but the success rate is still “very, very high”.




Cancer has taken our health system by storm and is among the leading causes of death worldwide, but could our trusty furry companion’s offer our own personal screening?  A story emerged a number of years ago of Nancy Best, who’s dog Taffy had become very interest in a particular spot on Nancy’s right breast, this interest and constant stiffing and nudging lasted a week, Nancy discovered what she thought felt like a lump and went to the doctors,

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Breast cancer survivor Nancy Granato and her helpful dog Taffy

it turns out she had Stage 2 invasive ductile carcinoma. Since this, research has been done that has revealed that malignant tissues give off chemicals that are distinctive from that of normal tissue. Ted Gansler, MD, MBA, director of medical content for the American Cancer Society said that “it’s not surprising that dogs can recognise these differences”.



The InSitu Foundation has been working over many years to develop the scientific protocols that need to be used when training cancer detection dogs for both the dogs and their handlers.

Rob Harris from Medical Detection Dogs describes the training and it’s very similar to that of the Dogs4Diabetes training. They condition the dogs through clicker training, the clicker signals to the dog that their most recent behaviour was correct and the dog will receive his reward. “Over time, the dog learns that the click only appears as he sniffs at a cancer sample.” says Harris.


Researchers from the Working Dog Center working on scent based training


Using dogs as our own ultrasound and MRI scanner will never be a full proof way of testing for cancer and will never replace the methods used nowadays with modern medicine. Ralph Hendrix, executive director of Dogs4Diabetics,voices that as this is becoming more popular there are dog training companies that are not following the correct training methods and are not completing enough training to ensure their dogs are fully qualified medical detection dogs and this is putting their clients’ health at serious risk.

Dog’s have become a very important part of our life and our society, providing companionship and security, and now we’re discovering they’re looking out for us more than we may have thought. A bond between a human and dog is a beautiful thing, and I think we owe them a lot more than we give them credit for. As I finish I’ll leave you with a very quick video from Medical Detection Dogs that runs through a simple version of some of their training procedures.




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3 comments on “Man’s Best Friend: How they keep us Healthy

  1. rebeccapinder
    May 5, 2016

    What a great topic. There certainly has been some noise in the news about the benefits of “service dogs” in maintaining health and security in all areas of the community. There are numerous examples of service dogs out and about within our communities including: Medical alert dogs that are used for detecting health issues such as low blood sugar (diabetes), electrical changes in brain activity (epilepsy), severe migraines and blood pressure changes; Psychiatric assistance/ service dogs which are used for PTSD sufferers; Autism assistance dogs which are used to keep a sufferer company and also physically stop them from inadvertant harm should they choose to wander; Mobility assistance dogs which are used to assist the mobility impared members of the community to open drawers, doors etc and assist in day-to day activities; Hearing dogs and also guide dogs. There is also a pilot program currently underway to determine if an assistance dog can help keep dementia patients safe.

    The science behind the efficacy of these service dogs is lacking in targeted research however, the personal reports available by members who use these dogs are a testament to the efficacy of these dogs as a health preventative/ protection measure.
    Here are a few links pertaining to this topic that you may find interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. kirstyleemcnamara
    May 7, 2016

    You always see the dogs on TV at airports and festivals sniffing out drugs but you don’t often hear about the medical advantages of their ability. This is the first time I have heard of them sniffing out cancers, which I think is just incredible. You said that the sniffer dogs will never replace the modern technology in terms of detecting cancers etc, which is completely understandable, so I was just wondering, what exactly are they planning on using these trained dogs for? Or where are they planning on using these dogs?

    I have seen heaps of research of K-9 dogs in the police force, trained to sniff out bombs. It’s amazing to think how many lives can be and have been saved by dogs. They truly are man’s best friend, I mean you see dogs leading people who have no or little sight around busy streets and cities yet the owner can have such trust and respect for them. Not many people hold as much trust and respect to other people as they do their dogs, whether guild dogs or house pets.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. jteee1
    May 8, 2016

    Hi there,
    A fantastic read on the importance of dogs in our life! Teaching dogs to be able to detect change in scent could be of great advantage to us in many ways! I found your write up particularly relevant as last night my mum hired out a Movie called Oddball which is a true story about a dog that was taught to look out for foxes and protect endangered penguins on an island. She watched it with our 6 month old Golden retriever in the hope that it might inspire her to do something similar on our family farm, although taking her to obedience school and watching movies doesn’t quite go to the extent of what some of the smartest dogs in the world are doing. Do you believe that dogs can pass on their intelligence to their offspring?
    I was watching the news the other morning only to see that dogs were being taught to fly aeroplanes. Here is the link to an article on it:–seriously/news-story/138bfa946b053554a0b7fd5395a79fc6

    Liked by 2 people

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This entry was posted on May 3, 2016 by in Burwood - Friday 11am, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , .

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