Dogs Helping Dogs: Scent-Detection Dogs Sniff Out Canine Disease

Story at-a-glance -

  • My guest once again is Dr. Anna Hielm-Björkman of the University of Helsinki, founder of the DogRisk research project to learn more about how nutritional, environmental and genetic factors influence disease in dogs
  • Another project Dr. Anna and her team are working on involves cancer-sniffing dogs; this study is unique because the dogs are being trained to sniff out cancer in other dogs
  • The cancer-sniffing dogs appear to be at least 100 times more accurate than a mass spectrometer, and their raw diets may enhance their sense of smell
  • The cancer-sniffing study, just like all the DogRisk studies, is entirely ethical, and the dogs involved in the studies are family pets, including purebreds and rescues
  • With additional funding, the scent detection project and other equally valuable DogRisk studies can be completed, validated and published in peer-review journals for use by veterinarians, dog owners and others

By Dr. Becker

My guest again today is DogRisk founder Dr. Anna Hielm-Björkman, who comes to us from the veterinary school at the University of Helsinki. DogRisk is a Finnish research program that includes many projects to learn more about how nutritional, environmental and genetic factors influence disease in dogs.

Earlier in the week, Dr. Anna introduced us to the DogRisk projects and the results she’s seeing from the massive database she has compiled using her Food Frequency Questionnaire (FFQ). Today we’ll be discussing her research with cancer-sniffing dogs. I asked her to explain a little about it.

The DogRisk Dogs Are Detecting Breast or Mammary Cancer in Other Dogs

“The DogRisk cancer-sniffing dogs are special in that they are detecting cancer in other dogs,” Dr. Anna replied. “There are many programs out there to train dogs to detect prostate, breast, and other cancers in humans, which is of course very important.

We plan to work in the human cancer-sniffing area in the future, but we decided to start with dogs sniffing out dog cancer because nobody has done it and we were really interested to see if dogs would be able to focus, for example, on sniffing the urine of a female dog in heat without reacting in the usual way to it.

These dogs are hard workers. They're terrific and so fun to watch because they really know what they're doing and they do it with passion and precision, even when they’re sniffing things that should distract them, like the urine of a female in heat.”

The cancer-sniffing study wasn’t my idea, so I can’t take credit for it. It was conceived by Susanna Paavilainen, who started the [non-profit] canine research and scent detection association Wise Nose with Niina Siljander, Anna Loimaranta and some other friends from Finland.

They all train dogs and do all types of cancer and nutrition-related research with us. When Susanna took the course to train her dog to find mold in houses, it led her to realize that one of her dogs was sniffing her other dog in a specific way, and as it turned out, the second dog had developed cancer.

She came to me and said she thought she had a dog that could sniff cancer. She asked if we could study it, and I thought it was an excellent idea. I loved the project right from the start. It’s so much fun!”

Samples for the Cancer-Sniffing Dogs Come From Different Sources

I asked Dr. Anna where she gets samples for the cancer-sniffing study.

“I work in the department of small animal surgery,” she replied. “So I talked to my colleagues and got them interested in the project and in providing us with samples. What we do is phone dog owners before they bring their pet in for mammary tumor removal. We ask them to bring in as much urine as they can get from the day before and from the morning of the surgery.”

Once the removed tumor has been identified as a certain type of cancer, an adeno-carcinoma, we can use that dog’s urine to train or validate the dogs. So we use in-house samples and we also get a lot of samples from other veterinarians in the vicinity who are just as enthusiastic about the program as we are.

We even get samples from Estonia, because the program is getting international exposure. We’re also working with another university, the University of Eastern Finland (UEF), with professor Jouko Vepsäläinen. He’s helping us find the molecules the dogs are sniffing. We’re actually letting the dogs tell us.

UEF professor Jouko is either spiking healthy urine with the molecules he thinks the dogs recognize as cancer, or he's taking away the molecules that he thinks the dogs recognize from cancer samples and we show them to the dogs again. The dogs kind of tell us, ‘Okay, I still recognize this as cancer,’ or ‘Sorry, but there is no cancer smell here anymore.’

It's not one molecule, it's kind of a molecule soup and we're trying to figure out the right molecules as well as the right percentages of each in cancer samples. Ultimately our goal is to get this into a form that makes it a really easy way of diagnosing cancer in dogs, and someday in humans, sort of like a pregnancy test.”

DogRisk Cancer-Sniffing Dogs Are Over 100 Times More Accurate Than a Mass Spectrometer, and Raw Diets May Enhance Their Sense of Smell

The idea is to use cancer-sniffing dogs for early detection purposes. Dr. Anna’s team is trying to find exactly how diluted a urine sample containing neoplasia particles can be and still trigger a response from the dogs. I asked her how accurate the dogs are. “Well, I can't really reveal much because this hasn't been published,” she replies, “but let's just say the dogs are at least 100 times more accurate than a mass spectrometer, which is what we use to measure with now.”

That’s incredible! “We don't know yet if we simply have some dogs who are really good at cancer detection, or if most dogs can be trained to be as good. That’s one aspect of our cancer-sniffing studies that we need funding for.” Since everything under the DogRisk umbrella involves some aspect of nutrition, I asked Dr. Anna to talk about what she’s discovered relative to a dog’s diet and his ability to sniff out cancer.

“It appears to us that our dogs fed raw food are better at cancer detection,” says Dr. Anna. “There might be something, based on our gene expression and metabolomic study results, that indicates raw diets influence the dogs’ senses, but this is very preliminary. It’s just a hunch we have, and we have no data yet confirming this is actually happening. This is another area where we could use more funding.”

The DogRisk Team Needs Financial Help to Complete Their Studies and Publish Their Research

“With our scent detection project, we're in the process of validating our results with the [seven] dogs we're working with now. We're maybe halfway through validating their ability to smell breast cancer in other dogs. The next step will be to look at the nutrition angle and see how it impacts the dogs’ sense of smell.”

I asked Dr. Anna how additional funding would help her achieve her goals with the scent-detection study.

“At this time, our funding situation is not good. We’re basically out of funds and working sort of hand-to-mouth. It would be a huge benefit to get some additional funds, because we (and especially, I) spend a lot of research time trying to raise the money we need.

The more funds we can raise to complete our current projects, the ones we’ve been discussing all week with you, the sooner we can get our research published and into the hands of veterinarians, dog owners, and other interested parties. And we will finally have more than just anecdotal evidence. We’ll have published peer-reviewed research to refer to.

We are also happy to have worked with Suomen hajuerottelu ry (Wise Nose in English) for the last two years. As I said earlier, Wise Nose is a Finnish non-profit organization that our project coordinator, Susanna Paavilainen started in 2013 to support dog training and research.

The organization teaches nose work to dogs and their owners, and also trains and validates cancer detection dogs with us. These days they also handle the fundraising so we in the DogRisk team can put our energy into our projects.

As a non-profit organization it is easy for Wise Nose to collect funds and donate the money we generate this week to the DogRisk research group at the University of Helsinki, for research. We should always report the permit number that we have for our crowdfunding so I will do it here: RA/2016/443, and it is valid until June 2018.”

Having cancer-sniffing dogs that are able to detect mammary cancer in other dogs, typically intact females, is huge because I know from experience this type of cancer is one of female dog owners' biggest fears. It would be wonderful to have cancer-sniffing dogs that can detect the disease in its earliest stages, when cancer cells are just beginning to replicate in the body.

“And here again,” adds Dr. Anna, “our research ties to nutrition, as it would be very nice to study ketogenic diets in dogs that suffer from cancer here in Finland.”

How awesome it would be to be able to send a dog’s urine sample to Finland or use the DogRisk technology to train dogs in the U.S.? Veterinarians could submit urine samples on an annual basis to insure intact female dogs were not developing mammary cancer. It’s really inspiring to think about having dogs be a part of helping dogs remain healthy!

Each DogRisk Project Is Entirely Ethical: All the Dogs Used in the Studies Are Family Pets

“All of our DogRisk projects,” says Dr. Anna, “use methods from human medicine like epidemiology in the FFQ and the diet diaries, and OMICS-techniques like metabolomics, microbiota research, gene expression research — all these fields are kind of hot right now in human medicine. We've brought them over to the dog side of things, and we're using our own pet dogs, and so there's an ethical aspect to this as well.

We don't use lab animals. We don't use rats or mice, and actually, dogs are better subjects from both a genetics and environment standpoint. People and their dogs live in the same environment, breathe the same air, drink the same water, and so on.

I have a lot of diseases in my family. Both of my parents died of cancer and most of my grandparents as well, so I have an increased genetic risk. It was quite close to my heart to start a project like DogRisk, where we can work to help both animals and people. I hope to do some cancer research in the future as well.

The ethics behind all the DogRisk projects are excellent. Dr. Anna and her team are insuring they are in no way exploiting another species for the benefit of humans.

“That is very, very important to us,” says Dr. Anna. “Our cancer detection dogs are both purebreds and rescues. My own dog is a rescue from Greece and our star cancer detection dog, Kossi, is a rescued Galgo from Spain. He was found in a cardboard box on a Malaga highway. To really love what you do in your work, you have to respect the lives of the ones you work with.

With our projects, we’re just using information from the dogs. Sometimes they do have to come into the clinic so we can take a hair or blood sample. We try to take samples when the dogs are in the clinic for another reason, like a wellness exam. I think they’re happy to work with us and we are surely happy to work with them. That's one of the reasons we love the research we do — we have a clear conscience about how our study subjects are treated.”

I very much appreciate Dr. Anna for giving us a nice overview of the DogRisk cancer-sniffing project. This is a fun one. It's fun for the scent detection dogs, and it will be tremendously beneficial to other dogs and, ultimately, to humans as well.

DogRisk Scent-Detection Dogs at Work

Below are a few videos of DogRisk scent-detection dogs doing their job. Urine samples are kept in a freezer and are removed about an hour before a training or validation session. The dogs work on a scent track where there are at least five urine samples in metallic containers with wire mesh lids. The dogs can sniff through the lid but cannot contaminate the urine, as their noses do not get into the containers.

“The dogs are trained using discrimination and positive reinforcement,” explains Dr. Anna. “The training starts with learning to discriminate. The dog learns that we want him to show us a black ball, for example. Then we teach him to pick out one smell. He learns that we want him to react on just that scent each time he smells it.

He is taught to ‘say’ this is the right one, meaning we teach him how to gesture or indicate when he smells the target scent. We start with one sample and then more samples are added. The dog will always pick out the one he was taught to recognize, by discrimination. Only dogs motivated by treats or play or another incentive can be trained.”

“On a scent track there will be either one or no positive samples,” Dr. Anna continues. “If there are none, the dog should not mark any container and will get a snack for not marking [indicating] anything. If there is one positive, meaning one cancer sample among the samples, the dog should mark it.

The positive samples are canine cancer samples and the negative samples are from dogs who don’t have cancer. To make it more difficult for the cancer-sniffing dogs, we include the urine of dogs with other diseases, on medication, eating different diets, who are in heat or pregnant, etc. When the dogs are repeatedly accurate over 90 percent of the time, we begin the validation.”