6 of the Most Famous Dogs in Science History

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

famous dogs in science

Story at-a-glance -

  • Dogs are not only our most loyal companions, but they also play an essential role in scientific research and advancements
  • Some of the most well-known canines of science include Robot, who led his owner to an incredible archeological find; the first two space traveling dogs, Strelka and Belka; and Chaser the Border Collie, considered the smartest dog in the world
  • Today’s dogs are working with scientists to detect COVID-19 in public places, help with wildlife conservation, detect medical crises in humans before they occur, and sniff out a wide range of diseases, including cancer

Thanks to their close bond with us, their trainability and their incredible sense of smell, which is estimated to be anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 times greater than ours, dogs have long played a pivotal role in scientific research and innovations.

The following are some of the most well-known canines in science history, according to Smithsonian Magazine and Science Focus Magazine.

6 Famous Dogs of Science

#1 — Robot, Discoverer of Cave Art — Robot was a white mixed-breed dog who, according to some accounts, was instrumental in the discovery of one of the biggest archaeological finds of the 20th century.

Robot was out for a walk with his human and fell into a foxhole. When his owner followed Robot’s barks into the caves at Lascaux in southwestern France, he came upon more than 600 of the most detailed and well-preserved examples of prehistoric art in existence, created by generations of early humans.

#2 and #3 — Strelka and Belka, Canine Astronauts — The Soviet Union launched the Sputnik 5 capsule into space in August 1950, with dogs Strelka and Belka, along with mice, rats and a rabbit onboard.

The animals became the first living beings to go into orbit and return safely to earth, paving the way for manned spaceflight. The dogs went on to live full lives, including having families.

#4 and #5 — Togo and Balto, Serum Delivery Dogs — In 1925 Nome, Alaska, a remote mining town, diphtheria was sweeping through the population, especially the children. The treatment at the time was an “antitoxin” serum, but the nearest supply was in Anchorage, and trains could only travel to within 700 miles of Nome.

Togo and Balto were among some 100 Siberian Husky sled dogs tasked with transporting the serum. Togo traveled twice the distance of any of the other dogs, and through the most dangerous terrain. Balto was the dog who finished the final 55-mile stretch and delivered the serum safely to Nome.

#6 — Chaser, Canine Einstein — Chaser, a Border Collie who died in 2019 at age 15, is often referred to as the world’s smartest dog. She learned to identify over 1,000 objects, giving her the largest word memory of any non-human animal.

Brian Hare, Ph.D., of Duke University's Canine Cognition Center developed the Dognition website, which asks each online participant to play games (created by scientists, trainers and behaviorists) with their dog. Hare believes dogs, like humans, have multiple types of intelligence. Dognition assesses a dog's empathy, communication, cunning, memory and reasoning. Chaser's Dognition results were fascinating.

"Researchers placed 10 items that Chaser could already identify in a pile with an unfamiliar one," writes Jan Hoffman for The New York Times. "Then they asked her to fetch the one that she had not yet learned. She did so correctly because she inferred it was the only object she did not recognize, researchers said. A week later, when asked to retrieve the same item, Chaser remembered."1

In the areas of inference and memory, Chaser scored "off the charts" according to Hare.

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More Dogs Working in Scientific Fields

COVID-19 Detection Dogs — COVID-19 sniffer dogs are being trained to identify people who might be infected with the virus at schools, airports and other public places in Helsinki, the U.K., France, Germany, Australia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine.

The accuracy of the dogs’ ability to detect COVID-19 is encouraging. Preliminary tests conducted by veterinary researchers at the University of Helsinki suggest dogs are able to detect the virus with nearly 100% certainty, days before symptoms appear.2

Existing lab tests can’t detect the virus as early as the dogs are able to, and in addition, the dogs require a much smaller sample than PCR tests use. While the dogs need just 10 to 100 molecules to identify the virus, lab test equipment requires 18,000,000 molecules.

Wildlife Conservation Dogs — Dogs are also working in wildlife conservation helping to catch poachers around the globe and tracking rare and invasive species, enhancing environmental protection efforts made by humans.

Using their talented noses, dogs sniff out scat (poop) that scientists can use to determine genetic, physiological and dietary information about animals. From this data, conservationists can determine important information like species abun­dance and distribution and even physiological health in relation to environmental pressures.3

At the University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology, a Conservation Canines program trains scat detection dogs that are monitoring a number of threatened and endangered species, including tigers, orcas, fishers, spotted owls, bears, wolves, jaguars and Pacific pocket mice.4

Medical Detection Dogs — Dogs trained as medical alert assistance dogs work with people with diabetes, severe allergies, Addison's disease and other life-threatening health conditions. They can detect subtle changes in blood sugar levels and hormones that indicate a medical emergency may soon occur. The dogs then alert their owner and even call for help and gather medical supplies.5

The charity Medical Detection Dogs trains canines to detect human disease and help their owners manage health conditions. Although most of the dogs work with diabetics, they can also help with other medical conditions like Postural Tachycardia Syndrome (PoTS), which can cause dangerous blackouts. The dogs are trained to alert their owners and bring them to safety before they fall unconscious.

Dogs can even be trained to sniff out gluten, which can be a game changer for people with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder. If gluten is consumed, it triggers an immune response that damages the small intestine, causing impaired nutrient absorption and a host of other debilitating symptoms.

Gluten-sniffing dogs may detect gluten in amounts as small as 0.0025 parts per million with 95% to 98% accuracy.6

Disease Detection Dogs — Dogs are able to detect cancer odors with a high degree of accuracy, and you can find a list of fascinating case reports here. And while dogs that can sniff out cancer tend to grab headlines, the keen canine sense of smell also has the potential to be helpful in detecting other diseases with characteristic odors, including:

Urinary tract infections

Gastrointestinal (GI) disorders (e.g., gastritis due to a H. pylori infection)

Diabetes

Psychological disorders

Endocrine disorders (e.g., Cushing’s syndrome)

Thyroid disorders

Cirrhosis

Candida esophagitis

Sinusitis

Alcohol abuse