Imagine being able to detect a disease simply by sniffing a patient’s breath or bodily fluids. It might sound like science fiction, but medical detection dogs are making this a reality. These specially trained dogs have an incredible sense of smell that allows them to detect the subtle chemical changes that occur in the body when a disease is present. From cancer to diabetes, medical detection dogs are being used to diagnose a wide range of conditions, and as medical alert assistance dogs alert their owners of medical problems. Their potential impact on healthcare is enormous. We’ll take a closer look at what medical detection dogs are, how they are trained, and the many ways in which they are being used to revolutionize the field of medicine and answer these questions about medical detection dogs.
What is a medical detection dog?
What is a disease detection dog?
What is a medical alert assistance dog?
How do medical detection dogs perform their services?
What dogs make good medical detection dogs?
How do people become a medical detection dog handler?
Are Medical Detection Dogs Service Dogs?
What is a Medical Detection Dog?
A medical detection dog is either a (i) Disease Detecting Dog that helps scientists and medics detect diseases, such as cancers, neurological diseases and bacterial infections early, and (ii) Medical Alert Assistance Dogs that support individuals with complex health conditions who have limited awareness of an impending life-threatening medical event.
How Do Medical Detection Dogs Perform Their Services?
Medical detection dogs have a natural ability to detect specific biological changes in our bodies and receive extensive training which allows them to be effective at performing their services.
When dogs are performing medical detection services they are detecting volatile organic compounds (VOCs) associated with changes in their owners’ physiology. Upon detecting the VOCs they alert their handler allowing them to take action or they alert caregivers, including doctors to begin addressing the medical issues.
Within the human body, endogenous VOCs are produced during metabolic processes of cells. Specific patterns of VOCs have the potential to serve as odor biomarkers for metabolic conditions and disease states. Given the well researched olfactory acuity of dogs, researchers have found that dogs can detect odors associated with these VOC patterns allowing them to detect disease states and conditions including, cancers, epileptic seizures, and hypo- and hyperglycemia.
What is a Disease Detection Dog?
Disease detection dogs are different from medical alert assistance dogs since they are focused on detecting diseased cells thereby expanding the world of diagnosis through the recognition of volatiles. Diseased cells produce volatile chemicals, enabling their detection by dogs. Dogs have been detecting many forms of cancer with great accuracy, along with Covid-19, neurological diseases, and bacterial diseases.
The study of dogs detecting diseases is growing. Researchers like Pickel and others in an article in Applied Animal Behavior Science have determined that cancerous cells produce volatile chemicals, enabling their detection by dogs.
Scientific Research and Disease Detection Dogs
This scientific research has formed the basis of learning the power of disease detection dogs and assessed the accuracy of the disease detection dogs:
- In a 2004 study by Willis and colleagues (British Medical Journal 2004) medical detection dogs were trained to detect bladder cancer by smelling urine samples from patients and healthy controls. Six dogs of varying breeds were used, none of which had been trained for previous scent work. Overall diagnostic accuracy was 41% (compared with the 14% success rate expected from chance alone) but the best dog achieved 56% accuracy.
- In a further study in The Journal of Cancer Biomarkers 2011, ‘Volatile organic compounds as biomarkers of bladder cancer: Sensitivity and specificity using trained sniffer dogs’ researchers did 30 double-blind test runs, each consisting of one bladder cancer urine sample placed alongside six controls. The highest sensitivity achieved by the best performing dog was 73%! The medical detection dog group as a whole correctly identified the cancer samples 64% of the time. The success rate of dogs detecting cancer ranged from 92% to 56% based on the sample.
- Supporting evidence has been published around the world including a study by Cornu and colleagues (European Urology 2011), ‘Olfactory Detection of Prostate Cancer by Dogs Sniffing Urine: A Step Forward in Early Diagnosis’, indicated the possibilities of canine cancer detection (sensitivity 91%, specificity 91%).
- A 2011 study by Sonoda and colleagues investigated colorectal cancer screening using fecal samples, and demonstrated equally promising results (sensitivity 97%, specificity 99%).
Other similar studies have had dogs detect lung and prostate cancer with similar accuracy. Medical Detection Dogs, a group that is training medical dogs have trained medical detection dogs to detect Covid-19, bacterial infections and neurological infections. Medical Detection Dogs have also trained amazing cancer detection dogs to detect the odor of melanoma cells and urine from people with bladder cancer along with prostate cancer in patients. Dogs have been detecting cancer with great accuracy.
What is a Medical Alert Assistance Dog?
Medical Alert Assistance Dogs are different from Disease Detection Dogs; they are dogs trained to support individuals with complex health conditions who have limited awareness of an impending life-threatening medical event. Dogs are trained to use their amazing sense of smell to identify minute odor changes emitted prior to an emergency and alert the person to take preventative action.
By assisting individuals with their condition, dogs help reduce medical emergencies giving people and their family and caregivers greater confidence and independence, enabling them to lead a full and happy life.
Medical Assistance Dogs may provide warning signs to their handlers which include seeking attention, barking, jumping up and becoming overly attentive;. This allows the patients to get to safety prior to the onset of a seizure where their dogs usually watch over them.
What Are Medical Alert Assistance Dog’s Jobs?
Medical Alert Assistance Dogs can detect many medical emergencies and are currently working for people with the following health issues and many more:
- Type 1 diabetes
- Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (PoTS)
- Addison’s disease
- Severe allergies
- Other endocrine disorders
- Episodes of sudden health deterioration
Dogs like Nano, a small breed and unassuming dog trained by Medical Detection Dogs, have an important dog job to do as they support their owners with serious medical issues. Nano is a nut detection dog, Nano alerts his handler, Yasmine, to the presence of nuts in various environments, such as detecting nuts on her colleagues’ desks and in drawers and he accompanies her everywhere to double-check her food and surroundings. Due to his nut detection capabilities, Yasmin can avoid potentially life-threatening contact with nuts.
You may have also heard stories of dogs supporting people with epilepsy. In an article by Brown and Strong in an article Seizure Alert- Fact or Fiction? Researchers found that Dogs trained to alert their owners to impending epileptic attacks were able to consistently indicate to their owners that a seizure was imminent, with warning times ranging from 10 to 45 minutes.
Similarly, people with diabetes reported that their dogs react to their hypoglycaemic attacks. Dogs have reportedly detected the symptoms prior to their owners noticing anything wrong with similar behaviors as the seizure detection dogs. The mechanisms by which dogs detect changes in human blood glucose levels are unknown, but it is suspected that the dogs recognize olfactory changes attributed to increased sweating, possibly combined with muscle tremors and behavioral changes says Chen and fellow researchers in an Article titled Non-invasive detection of hypoglycemia using a novel, fully biocompatible and patient friendly alarm system.
What Makes a Good Medical Detection Dog?
As we discuss in our other Amazing Dog with Amazing Jobs Articles, and like other amazing detection dogs:
A good medical detection dog is not a specific breed of dog but they are dogs with a keen sense of smell, high working drive, intelligence, confidence, attentiveness, determination, and strong nerves. Not all dogs have the capacity to alert to medical issue even with these characteristics.
Experts have indicated that out of 20 dogs one may be suitable for the job.
People with disabilities have the right to train their own service dog as we discuss in our comprehensive article on the Ultimate Guide to Service Dogs. If you elect to have a third party train your dog for this important task of medical detection, the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners requires a minimum of 120 hours of training along with a specific list of tasks and requirements. There are many sources of information if you wish to train your own animal.
How do you become a medical detection dog trainer?
So you want to contribute to the important task of providing Medical Assistant Dogs to the Community or maybe just train your own medical assistance dog? Medical Detection dog trainers are a patient, disciplined and dedicated group of people. The dogs they are training much like other scent dogs are very specifically trained and have an important job to do.
Training a medical detection dog takes extensive training of the dog and of you. There are several classes and programmes that can teach you how to train medical detection dogs but the process includes training the dogs to similar cues as other detection work and a consistent system of reward. Since medical detection dogs may be relied on to save life, training is a serious business.
You may find that a course like those offered by the International School for Dog Trainers have comprehensive programs that can teach you to become a medical detection dog trainer.
Are Medical Detection Dogs Service Dogs?
The definition of a service animal under Federal law “Any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental disability.”
Accordingly, a medical detection dog has to be trained to perform specific tasks for the benefit of the individual as opposed to simply providing support and comfort which has not been viewed as a task. A dog that detects and warns a handler from an allergen by barking is an example of a dog performing a task.
We love dogs and love them for the support they provide but to gain the protections and benefits under Federal law of a service dog a dog has to perform a task for a person with a disability and been trained for that task.
There are many cases that have reviewed the applicability of service dogs and this is typically the analysis along with the special training that the dog has had. As we mentioned service dogs can be trained by you but they have to actually be trained and not in training to qualify for the various protections under the law.
Medical detection dogs in the form of Medical Assistance Dogs and Disease Detection Dogs are doing important work for their handlers by saving lives, contributing to science and reducing health care costs.
Do you know of a medical detection dog with an important job? Please share their story.
Check out more in our Amazing Dogs Series. Dogs that inspire us:
Amazing Dog Series – The Complete Guide to Emotional Support Animals (Plus Handy Infographic comparison ESA to Service Dogs and Downloadable sample ESA letter)
Medical Detection Dog FAQ
Medical detection dogs can detect disease or support their owners with health issues such as: Type 1 diabetes, Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (PoTS), Addison’s disease, Severe allergies, Other endocrine disorders, Episodes of sudden health deterioration
Yes medical detection dogs can detect cancer they have been trained to detect many different types of cancer including prostate cancer.
It can be very expensive to have a medical detection dog trained upwards of $40,000 due to the extensive time it takes to train the dogs to perform the services.
It can take 6-12 months to train a medical detection dog. They need a lot of practice and it may be complicated to get the sample they need to detect as part of their training.