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Dogs Can be Trained to Detect and Assist with Medical Conditions

Dogs are capable of noticing the slightest of changes in human bodies through scent — and we’re just beginning to discover their capabilities. It’s estimated that dogs have a sense of smell that is 10,000 to 100,000 times better than ours. James Walker, the former director of the Sensory Research Institute at Florida State University, who’s team rigorously tested dog’s scenting ability explains, “if you make the analogy to vision, what you and I can see at a third of a mile, a dog could see more than 3,000 miles away and still see as well.” Here’s an overview of how dogs can be trained to detect and assist with medical conditions.

When a dog breathes, air separates into separate paths. One path (marked in red) flows into the olfactory area and the other (blue) passes through the pharynx (marked black) to the lungs. © Courtesy of Brent Craven


How dogs’ sense of smell can assist with medical conditions

Dogs are capable of noticing the slightest of changes in human bodies caused by various systems including, hormonal changes and any volatile organic compounds that our bodies release from, for example, cancer cells. The great news is that scientists and dog trainers are leaning more and more about how dogs smell and applying training techniques to sniff out and assist with medical conditions.

Assisting with diabetes

Dogs can be trained to help people with diabetes realize that they are experiencing blood sugar levels spiking or dropping. Scientists have discovered that human breath has a natural chemical called isoprene that rises notably when a person with type 1 diabetes is going through a period of low blood sugar, also known as hypoglycemia. With training, dogs can alert their owners and give them time to take their insulin when they see that their blood test confirms the warning as accurate.

Detection of cancer

Heather Junqueira, researcher at BioScentDx conducted a study titled, “A highly sensitive test for detecting cancer could potentially save thousands of lives and change the way the disease is treated.”

She present this research at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology annual meeting during the 2019 Experimental Biology meeting. Junqueira and her team used a a type of clicker training to teach four beagles to distinguish between normal blood serum and samples from patients with malignant lung cancer. Three of the four dogs correctly identified lung cancer samples 96.7 percent of the time and normal samples 97.5 percent of the time.

“This work is very exciting because it paves the way for further research along two paths, both of which could lead to new cancer-detection tools,” Junqueira explained. “One is using canine scent detection as a screening method for cancers, and the other would be to determine the biologic compounds the dogs detect and then design cancer-screening tests based on those compounds.”

BioScentDx is planning to use canine scent detection to develop a non-invasive methods for cancer screening and other life-threatening diseases. Their next project involves a breast cancer study where participants donate samples of their breath for screening by trained cancer-sniffing dogs. The researchers will separate the samples into their chemical components and present these to the dogs to isolate the substances causing the odor that the dogs detect.

Epileptic symptoms and seizure response

First, it is important to understand that there is no way to train a dog to alert on a seizure. Some dogs are able to detect seizures naturally, but they are extremely rare and even fewer are reliable. However, dogs can be trained to help with “seizure response.” Seizure Response dogs can be trained to perform tasks to help after a seizure such as summoning help, telephoning for help on a special phone, retrieving medication and more.

Fourier-transform ion cyclotron resonance mass spectrometry is a type of mass analyzer (or mass spectrometer) for determining the mass-to-charge ratio (m/z) of ions based on the cyclotron frequency of the ions in a fixed magnetic field.

Neurological disorders and brain disruptions

Manchester University has begun to conduct a two year study, funded by Parkinson’s UK and The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research with Medical Detection Dogs in a study to train dogs to test skin swabs for Parkinson’s using their incredible sense of smell. The team will also use mass spectrometers to split up samples into its component molecules, and they will also run each past the dogs to identify which key chemical indicator is involved in Parkinson’s.

Final thoughts

We are so familiar with dogs being our pets, our companions and our family that we are only now realizing how much they ate able to help us with personal health challenges. “If all diseases have an odor, which we have reason to believe they do, we can use dogs to identify them,” said Claire Guest, Chief executive of Medical Detection Dogs.







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