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Dogs can pick up on tiny changes in the human body, from a tiny shift in our hormones to the release of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, released by cancer cells. Researchers and dog trainers are just beginning to understand how dogs do this and how we might put them to work in being our helpers in health care. 

Current Uses of Bio Detection Dogs

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Bio detection dogs can smell signs of malaria on clothes worn by children infected with the disease, according to a study in Gambia. Researchers from The Gambia and the UK say that this canine ability may lead to the identification of people in need of treatment and may also help prevent the spread of the disease.

Previous research has shown that when people are infected with malaria, their odor changes, making them even more attractive to the mosquitoes that carry the disease. Armed with that knowledge, researchers trained dogs to detect the smell of malaria using clothes worn by people known to be infected with the disease. Then, they tested the dogs’ ability to detect that distinctive scent.

The clothes used in the test were socks worn by children in Gambia in West Africa. There were 175 pairs of socks tested - 30 worn by children infected with the parasite that causes malaria and 145 worn by children free of it. After the socks were worn overnight, they were shipped from Gambia to the UK for testing. The dogs picked up on the key scent from 70 percent of the socks worn by infected children, and incorrectly alerted to 10 percent of the socks worn by healthy children. (But in my experience, it’s often not an incorrect alert, but a failure on the part of medical testing to actually diagnose in the earliest of stages of a disease.)

The long-term goal is to use specially trained dogs to help detect and eradicate malaria. Dogs may be able to screen people at airports to prevent the spread of this disease and to find carriers of it who go undetected because they have no symptoms.

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Perhaps the condition dogs are currently most famous for detecting is cancer. Dogs have been able to sniff out a variety of types including skin cancer, breast cancer and bladder cancer.
There are quite a few stories of a pet dog obsessing about an owner's mole or some part of their body, only to discover in a doctor's appointment that the dog was actually sensing cancer. For example, Canada Free Press writes of a 1989 instance when a woman's "dog kept sniffing at a mole on her thigh but ignored other moles. In fact, the dog had actually tried to bite off the mole when she was wearing shorts. The woman consulted her doctor, the mole was excised, and the diagnosis confirmed a malignant melanoma."

In the last couple decades, researchers have looked seriously into dogs' sniffing abilities when it comes to cancers. In studies, dogs have successfully been trained to detect the disease using samples from known cancer patients and people without cancer.

Sometimes the dogs can do an even better job than the humans in these studies. According to Penn State News, Nancy Dreschel, a veterinarian in Dairy and Animal Science at Penn State University, tells of an illuminating example: "A scientist was training dogs to detect bladder cancer in humans by smelling their urine. She said a dog alerted them to a sample from a supposedly healthy person who was being used as a control. On reexamination that person was found to have bladder cancer, so the dog caught it before anyone else did."

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Clostridium Difficile

As a recent study published in the Canadian Journal of Infection Control demonstrates, two trained dogs, Angus and Dodger's scent-detection capabilities have helped the staff at Vancouver General Hospital gain some new insight into where C difficile is hiding out in the hospital, and how it's spreading to those places.

One thing they learned is that patient rooms aren't the only environmental reservoir for the pathogen.

Over an 18-month period, a research team that included Bryce and Zurberg found that, of 391 positive alerts from Angus and Dodger (out of 659 searches), 321 (82.1%) were in the general hospital environment, mainly on hallway items. More than half of the hits in the general environment (192/321, 59.8%) were on items almost exclusively handled by healthcare workers, such as carts, equipment that measures and monitors patient vital signs, and staff lockers. There were also alerts in areas shared by the public, including waiting rooms and public bathrooms.

For Bryce and Zurberg, a bigger benefit of the program is that it's a real-time infection control strategy that puts a spotlight on problem areas and sparks immediate discussions about transmission pathways and cleaning strategies. "The value of this program is that it allows us, in a totally non-punitive, non-judgmental way, to just re-engage everyone and use some in-the-moment teaching," Bryce says.

Hoffman says this kind of immediate feedback is crucial, given that other C difficile detection methods, such as environmental sampling, take much longer. "Sometimes we need out-of-the-box approaches, because C difficile continues to be a leading cause of morbidity and mortality in healthcare facilities. I think any effort to control C difficile would benefit from some real-time environmental detection.

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Contraband and plant pests

United States Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Agriculture Canine (K9) Hardy captured America’s heart when he discovered a 2 lb. cooked pig in checked luggage at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Not long before that, one of his canine pals found pork sausages in canisters of baby formula at Washington Dulles International Airport.

In 1979, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched its first K9 pilot program with large dog breeds such as Labradors. In 1984, the first teams using beagles were trained.
Harriger says beagles are the breed of choice for the agriculture mission due to their non-threatening appearance and kind nature, as well as their high drive for food, which is their reward. Beagles were selected for use in the air and cruise line passenger environments to enhance CBP’s layered approach to safeguard the nation from invasive plant pests and FADs.

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Agricultural Disease

A study out of Florida International University evaluates the use of scent-discriminating canines for the detection of laurel wilt-affected wood from avocado trees. Julian Mendel, Kenneth G. Furton, and DeEtta Mills have ferreted out a possible solution to a serious issue in one corner of the horticultural industry, and then ascertained the extent to which this solution is effective. 

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