Your Dog’s Amaz­ing Nose

With their in­cred­i­ble sense of smell, snif­fer dogs are detecting ev­ery­thing from early-stage can­cer to miss­ing per­sons and pets

Modern Dog - - CONTENTS - BY NOA NICHOL

With their in­cred­i­ble sense of smell, snif­fer dogs are detecting ev­ery­thing from early-stage can­cer to miss­ing per­sons and pets.

Though Katie Valaas’ beloved or­ange Tabby, Norm, was pre­dom­i­nantly an in­door cat, he was lucky enough to en­joy some out­door time in his Seat­tle neigh­bour­hood thanks to a har­ness and re­tractable lead. Un­for­tu­nately, on one of these out­ings, Katie set Norm’s lead down mo­men­tar­ily to tie her shoe and the cat took off run­ning, the plas­tic han­dle of his leash bump­ing along be­hind him. Katie searched her own and her neigh­bours’ yards to no avail—two days later, in the midst of a swel­ter­ing sum­mer heat wave, Norm was still miss­ing. She de­cided to call in an ex­pert.

“Katie found out about our group, the Miss­ing Animal Re­sponse Net­work (MARN), and one of our han­dlers, along with her dog, a Dachshund mix named Har­ley, re­sponded to her call,” ex­plains Kat Al­brecht, a for­mer po­lice of­fi­cer with years of ex­pe­ri­ence train­ing and han­dling snif­fer and de­tec­tion dogs for use in crim­i­nal work. “When we got to the area where Norm was last seen, Har­ley im­me­di­ately ze­roed in on a hot tub in the yard and started go­ing ab­so­lutely crazy with ex­cite­ment, as per his train­ing as a cat-de­tec­tion dog. When his han­dler looked un­der the hot tub, sure enough, there was Norm—he’d been there for three days, with­out food or wa­ter and with his lead hope­lessly wrapped around the ma­chin­ery, trap­ping and, in fact, nearly stran­gling him. They had to cut him out of his col­lar. I have no doubt that Har­ley saved Norm’s life that day.”

Kat, who is cur­rently based on Vancouver Is­land in Bri­tish Columbia, Canada, founded MARN after her own po­lice blood­hound, AJ, dug out of her back­yard and went miss­ing in the woods. Des­per­ate to find him, Kat called up a friend with a Golden Retriever who had been trained to track down miss­ing per­sons us­ing his sense of smell—the dog found AJ in 20 min­utes flat. That mo­ment changed Kat’s life for­ever.

“I asked my­self, as a pro­fes­sional in the field, ‘We train dogs to sniff out drugs, bombs, and even bed bugs—why in the world aren’t we us­ing them to find miss­ing pets?’ I de­cided to train my re­tired ca­daver dog, Rachel, to do so, and she went on to find two miss­ing cats and a miss­ing dog us­ing her nose. I went on to do this pet de­tec­tive work, write books, train peo­ple, and train other dogs. It’s been a 20-year mis­sion for me, to see these ser­vices avail­able in all com­mu­ni­ties.”

There is a dif­fer­ence, she ex­plains, be­tween the way a dog is trained to find a lost cat ver­sus a lost dog. In the for­mer case, the de­tec­tion dog is trained to seek out all cats in an area, and alert its han­dler to the pres­ence of any cat so that he or she can de­ter­mine whether it is, in­deed, the cat in ques­tion. When it comes to lost ca­nines, a de­tec­tion dog is trained to fol­low the miss­ing dog’s unique scent based on a pro­vided scent ar­ti­cle—a blan­ket or toy used reg­u­larly by that dog—and ig­nore the scents of all other dogs. The com­mon ground, of course, is scent. “Their sense of scent is amaz­ing—so much stronger and more pow­er­ful than our own,” Kat says. “They have the abil­ity to dis­crim­i­nate be­tween scents, to tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween one dog, or one per­son, and another.”

Cindy Otto, di­rec­tor of the Penn Vet Work­ing Dog Cen­ter at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia, agrees, adding that, when it comes to dogs, “their whole sys­tem is geared to ‘see’ the world through their noses.”

“When it comes to their ol­fac­tory abil­i­ties, there is plenty of data, lots and lots of facts, around how dogs dif­fer from hu­mans, from the phys­i­cal level right down to the molec­u­lar,” Cindy says. “But, when it comes to har­ness­ing this in­cred­i­ble sense of smell and us­ing it to per­form prac­ti­cal and even life­sav­ing ser­vices, the big­gest thing that sets ca­nines apart is their abil­ity and de­sire to work with peo­ple and to be trained to per­form cer­tain func­tions. Bears, for in­stance, have an even bet­ter sense of smell than dogs—vul­tures, too. But I don’t know many hu­man han­dlers who would be com­fort­able part­ner­ing with a 600-pound Griz­zly, and vul­tures, as far as I have seen, aren’t re­ally in­ter­ested in putting in a long day at the of­fice.”

To that point, the Penn Vet Work­ing Dog Cen­ter is ded­i­cated to har­ness­ing the unique strengths of our ca­nine part­ners, pro­duc­ing elite scent-de­tec­tion dogs for public safety and health.

“A de­tec­tion dog is a dog we part­ner with to iden­tify a spe­cific scent on which, gen­er­ally, they’ve been trained,” Cindy ex­plains. “We raise and train de­tec­tion dogs here at the cen­ter from the time they’re eight weeks old in a sort of ‘lib­eral arts’ de­gree, where they learn to find an odour. It doesn’t mat­ter what the odour is at the ear­li­est stages of train­ing—it could sim­ply be a chemist-made uni­ver­sal de­tec­tion com­pound. We’re sim­ply in­ter­ested in teach­ing them the process of find­ing this smell us­ing their nose.”

This, she says, is done by teach­ing pup­pies how “fun” it is to ex­plore the world us­ing their nose, and by re­ward­ing them, usu­ally through play, when­ever they hit on the con­trol scent. This al­lows the Penn Vet team to, as the dogs ma­ture, help them find their “ca­reer path,” whether that be ex­plo­sives, drug, ar­son, ca­daver, di­a­betes or can­cer-de­tec­tion work, by even­tu­ally in­tro­duc­ing them to the scent cor­re­spond­ing to that spe­cific line of work.

“The range of jobs these dogs have is mind-bog­gling—and ever grow­ing as we con­tinue our re­search,” says Cindy. “Off the top of my head, I can think of dogs who use their sense of smell to de­tect bombs and nar­cotics, who per­form search-and-res­cue work to find both sur­vivors and hu­man re­mains, who de­tect cell phones in pris­ons and who can find large amounts of con­cealed money. As we build more and more of these large pipe­lines across North Amer­ica and the world, we’re start­ing to train dogs to de­tect leaks to pre­vent ma­jor en­vi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ters. There are dogs who de­tect peanuts, help­ing chil­dren who suf­fer from ma­jor al­ler­gies, and con­ser­va­tion dogs who, with their noses alone, find ei­ther en­dan­gered or in­va­sive species. There are dogs who de­tect smug­gled ivory and, in our own work here at the cen­ter, we’re about to launch a study to see if dogs can de­tect stolen an­tiq­ui­ties smug­gled into the U.S. from Syria. The cra­zi­est de­tec­tion work I’ve heard of, how­ever, are the dogs that are trained to sniff out scat in the ocean in or­der to help sci­en­tists learn more about marine mam­mals like whales. Any­thing that emits a scent—and most things on this planet do—a snif­fer dog can be trained to de­tect.”

Scent-de­tec­tion ca­nines are also do­ing im­por­tant work in the health arena, with ser­vice dogs help­ing peo­ple who suf­fer from a range of med­i­cal-re­lated is­sues, in­clud­ing di­a­betes, seizures, and mi­graines, bet­ter man­age their con­di­tions. Mary McNeight of Ser­vice Dog Academy in In Water­loo, Illi­nois, has helped to train more than 150 medic alert dogs to pro­vide sup­port to peo­ple who live with and suf­fer from di­a­betes, nar­colepsy, seizures, pos­tural or­tho­static tachy­car­dia syn­drome (POTS), mi­graines, hy­po­glycemia, and atrial fib­ril­la­tion.

“We know that 40 per­cent of a dog’s brain is devoted just to their nose, giv­ing them a smelling ca­pac­ity more than 250 times greater than our own,” she says. “To give an ex­am­ple, a dog can smell a sin­gle drop of blood in a swim­ming pool filled with wa­ter—this, in turn, means that dogs can be trained to de­tect, via scent, the bi­o­log­i­cal changes that hap­pen in our bod­ies be­fore, say, a mi­graine or a seizure is about to hit, giv­ing peo­ple the time to pre­pare to deal with that sit­u­a­tion ac­cord­ingly.”

This means that some­one who suf­fers from mi­graines has a chance to get to a safe place and to take his or her med­i­ca­tion be­fore the headache hits. A per­son who has di­a­betes, alerted by a dog to changes in his or her blood-sugar lev­els, is able to get food and med­i­ca­tion—such as glu­cose tabs, in­sulin, juice, and me­ters—to rec­tify the sit­u­a­tion be­fore it be­comes life-threat­en­ing.

The train­ing, Mary says, is “al­most iden­ti­cal for all the dogs— it’s the ac­tual scent that is dif­fer­ent.” How­ever, for all of the dis­abil­i­ties that Ser­vice Dog Academy trains ca­nines to de­tect, she em­pha­sizes that “there’s a cas­cade of or­ganic com­pounds ex­haled off the breath and sloughed off the body, and our job is to teach the dog what’s im­por­tant to pay at­ten­tion to and what to ig­nore.”

While Mary’s medic alert dogs are trained to work with and

for a par­tic­u­lar in­di­vid­ual, other types of de­tec­tion dogs per­form scent work that ben­e­fits many mem­bers of the public. In Gatineau, Que­bec, Canada, Glenn Fer­gu­son han­dles a team of ca­nines who have been trained to de­tect can­cer in its early stages, work­ing off of the the­ory that can­cer cells un­dergo a dis­tinct meta­bolic process dif­fer­ent than nor­mal cells, con­sum­ing glu­cose at a much higher rate than their healthy coun­ter­parts and thus giv­ing up dif­fer­ent waste prod­ucts that have a dis­tinct smell.

“We started the train­ing us­ing breath sam­ples from dog walk­ers that we met at lo­cal dog parks, but even­tu­ally de­cided, due to the fact ran­dom mem­bers of the public can be hard to track, that we wanted to part­ner and work with a pro­fes­sional or­ga­ni­za­tion that would pro­vide some ver­i­fi­ca­tion and tes­ti­mony for our re­sults,” Glenn ex­plains, adding that he and his team at CancerDogs set their sights on fire­fight­ers who, due to the na­ture of their work, are a very high-risk group when it comes to can­cer.

“The first ma­jor depart­ment we worked with was in Chicago, and we’ve since gone on to test 30,000 fire­fight­ers in to­tal—10,000 in the last year alone,” he says. “Our dogs are trained to iden­tify the odour of can­cer­ous and pre-can­cer­ous cells by com­par­ing and con­trast­ing a lineup of five to six breath sam­ples, one of which is known to be can­cer, on what we call a sniff­ing sta­tion. We use a food re­ward to do this train­ing—in fact, none of our dogs has a bowl, this is how they’re fed their meals and that makes them very mo­ti­vated to do the work.”

When it comes to eval­u­at­ing the sam­ples of fire­fight­ers, Glenn likens it to a “mass screen­ing process, sort of like lug­gage go­ing over a carousel at the air­port.” Breath sam­ple kits, in­clud­ing a sur­gi­cal mask that is worn for 10 min­utes over the mouth and nose and then put back in an odour-proof pouch, are dis­trib­uted to fire­fight­ers across North Amer­ica, used sealed, and sent back to CancerDogs’ head­quar­ters, where they are “worked” by the dogs. If any mem­ber of Glenn’s ca­nine team picks up on a can­cer­ous or pre-can­cer­ous sam­ple, the fire­fighter to whom the sam­ple be­longs is no­ti­fied so that he or she can take the nec­es­sary next steps, such as con­sult­ing with their doc­tor or a spe­cial­ist and mak­ing changes to their diet or life­style.

“Peo­ple can be warned and take proac­tive mea­sures when it comes to can­cer, and that’s our aim in our work with these dogs, who are of­ten detecting the dis­ease two to three years be­fore it can be found via imag­ing,” he says. “We have, how­ever, had some peo­ple who have had se­ri­ous can­cers un­cov­ered, whose sur­vival was def­i­nitely

in doubt, but for the most part we are try­ing to pro­tect peo­ple, well ahead of time, from that late-stage di­ag­no­sis. For us, that’s a real suc­cess.”

Can­cer aside, dogs—and their won­der­ful noses—are also in­cred­i­bly use­ful when it comes to search and res­cue op­er­a­tions. In the moun­tains of Canada, avalanche res­cue dogs work to de­tect and pur­sue peo­ple who have been buried un­der the snow. Kyle Hale, pres­i­dent of the Cana­dian Avalanche Res­cue Dog As­so­ci­a­tion, says that with train­ing from his or­ga­ni­za­tion, teams of dogs and han­dlers are de­ployed through­out the prov­inces of B.C. and Al­berta when such dis­as­ters oc­cur.

“The thing about these dogs, be­yond their out­stand­ing sense of smell, is that we’re able to send them into these very high-risk, volatile ar­eas and cir­cum­stances to do the work of many peo­ple in a frac­tion of the time,” he ex­plains. “We train the dogs from a very young age us­ing a rel­a­tively sim­ple game of hide-and-seek, where the dog is, es­sen­tially, re­warded for solv­ing a prob­lem, and mak­ing that prob­lem harder and harder to solve. Even­tu­ally, the dogs are able to de­tect hu­man scent be­low a sur­face, and to dig through to the source of the scent. Though we highly rec­om­mend any­one go­ing into an avalanche-prone area wear a trans­ceiver in case some­thing hap­pen, in cases where this tech­nol­ogy isn’t present, the dogs are another ex­tremely use­ful tool we can use to find some­one who has been lost and buried.”

Un­for­tu­nately, when it comes to avalanches, most re­cov­ery ef­forts in­volve vic­tims who are de­ceased. Over at the Na­tional Dis­as­ter Search Dog Foun­da­tion (NDSDF) in Santa Paula, Cal­i­for­nia, the ob­jec­tive is dif­fer­ent.

“Our dogs are trained to search for live scent, mean­ing they’re only us­ing their noses to find sur­vivors of ma­jor dis­as­ters, to en­sure no one is left be­hind,” says NDSDF Mar­ket­ing and Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Of­fi­cer Denise San­ders. “The dogs are able to say there’s some­one here, un­der the rub­ble, who is still alive, or, al­ter­nately, there are no sur­vivors left here, so we need to move on.”

NDSDF res­cues its dogs, in­clud­ing Ger­man Shep­herds, Golden Re­triev­ers, Bor­der Col­lies, and Bel­gian Mali­nois, from shel­ters, trains them, and part­ners them with a first-re­spon­der han­dler to do search-and-res­cue work at a range of dis­as­ter sites, like Ground Zero in New York after 9/11 and Haiti fol­low­ing the 2010 earth­quake.

“We have trained 190 teams since 1996 and cur­rently have 69 ac­tive teams across the coun­try, and there’s still more needed,” Denise says. “Any time these big dis­as­ters hap­pen, whether it’s a hur­ri­cane or a mud­slide, the com­mu­ni­ties and coun­tries af­fected could def­i­nitely use more of these dogs, with their in­cred­i­ble sense of smell, to cover more ground more quickly—and, ul­ti­mately, save more lives.” Back at the Penn Vet Work­ing Dog Cen­ter, Cindy Otto agrees. “We know there’s a short­age of de­tec­tion dogs in the U.S.,” Cindy says. “The fact is, most of these dogs are cur­rently be­ing im­ported from other coun­tries, and there’s ac­tu­ally a big move in Congress at the mo­ment and among peo­ple in the in­dus­try that feel these dogs need to come from lo­cal, do­mes­tic sources so we can in­flu­ence their health and ge­netic wel­fare to a great de­gree. So of­ten, in so many sit­u­a­tions, we are putting hu­man lives in these dogs’ hands—or, as it were, their noses—it’s im­por­tant we uti­lize their unique abil­ity and take care of them to the ut­most de­gree.”

Our dogs are trained to iden­tify the odour of can­cer­ous and pre-can­cer­ous cells by com­par­ing and con­trast­ing a lineup of five to six breath sam­ples

When dogs grad­u­ate from the Penn Vet Work­ing Dog Cen­ter, they learn to ap­ply their search skills to their spec­i­fied tar­get odour, such as ex­plo­sives, drugs or med­i­cal de­tec­tion.

The Work­ing Dog Cen­ter is ded­i­cated to ex­plor­ing ways to im­prove man’s qual­ity of life through de­tec­tion and ear­lier di­ag­no­sis of many dev­as­tat­ing dis­eases, in­clud­ing ovar­ian can­cer.

The Penn Vet Work­ing Dog Cen­ter trains dogs by build­ing the dogs’ con­fi­dence to search out and find their tar­get in a va­ri­ety of en­vi­ron­ments, in­clud­ing build­ings, ve­hi­cles, and an ar­ray of out­door ar­eas.

Har­ley, the Miss­ing Animal Re­sponse Net­work search dog who found Norm the cat.

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