They're better than some tests, so why haven't they gone mainstream yet?
When it comes to cancer, there is no wiggle room when patients need to be screened to determine if they have the disease because an inaccurate screening could put someone’s life at risk. Though there are numerous medical tests used to detect a range of cancers, some experts began to wonder if there was a better way to detect the disease.
Animal behavior experts have known for years that dogs are intelligent beings that can often do things that humans cannot, such as use their sense of smell to find missing people or drugs. Some experts began to pose the question of whether dogs could sniff out diseases and set out to see if they could. The answer, of course, was yes.
Not all dogs are created equal, but the ones that have an extraordinary sense of smell and bred for detection, such as for hunting purposes, are the best ones for the job. There’s Lucy, who’s a cross between a Labrador retriever and an Irish water spaniel, who didn’t make it through guide school because of her curiosity but learned to detect bladder, kidney and prostate cancer. She has accurately detected cancer 95% of the time, which is better than some lab tests used for screenings.
The benefits of having dogs sniff out cancer is the efficiency with which they perform their job when compared to waiting for lab results. Patients wait days or even weeks to receive their results, most of which wind up being negative, but for the ones with a positive screening it’s best if they begin treatment as soon as possible. With a dog confirming or denying the presence of cancer in a urine sample, the results can be determined immediately.
One person who benefitted from this service was actually a dog that hadn’t finished her cancer-sniffing training but managed to alert her anyway. The woman, Claire Guest, was about to walk her Labrador, named Daisy, one day when the dog stopped and stared at her instead. She lunged at Claire several times, hitting her at the same point in her chest, and later that day Claire checked the area because she found that Daisy’s prodding hurt more than it should. When Claire found a lump, she went to the doctor’s office, who confirmed that she had breast cancer. She said,
“The surgeon said I was incredibly lucky for it to be diagnosed so early. It was as deep as a breast cancer can be, so by the time I’d felt anything, it would’ve been too late.”
Claire, who was already an animal behavior expert and working with dogs to sniff out diseases for medical purposes, decided to start an organization called Medical Detection Dogs. They’re one of the many companies that train dogs to sniff out different diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, and other life-threatening illnesses.
Despite the success of these dogs, their abilities in this field have not become a regular method used in screenings. There are several factors that continue to prevent them from being accepted commercially, including a dog’s propensity for error, just like humans, and the surprisingly hefty cost that comes with training, caring for, and hiring these dogs. Unlike machines, they need much more maintenance and money to keep them running everyday and perform better at certain times of the day.
As man’s best friend, it’s safe to say that these dogs don’t have this one job to fall back on and the ones with a great sense of smell can apply their noses to other things, like medical assistance, until they prove themselves worthy. Until then, companies like Guest’s will continue to train these dogs so that they can be recognized for how great they truly are at their jobs.
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