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.
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
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,
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.
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.