October 11, 2015

Dogs Can Truly Be Our Best Friends

During the course of determining whether I should invest in a documentary film about dogs, I gained some quite interesting insights into the potentially new role dogs can play in our health care system. Because dogs have a sense of smell that is 40 times as acute and discriminating as that residing in humans, some researchers have explored whether dogs can detect diseases as accurately and reliability as much more expensive technologies, with no need for invasive and time-consuming diagnostic processes.

Two organizations, the Pine Street Foundation in California and the Sensory Research Institute at Florida State University, have each done reported studies which have concluded that dogs can reliably detect various kinds of cancers, such as prostate, breast and skin cancers, because tumor cells give off different odors from regular cells. It will be quite interesting to determine whether their reliable detection is such that they can detect the presence of these diseases even earlier than more high-tech alternatives like 64-slice CT scans or MRI’s or nuclear magnetic resonance systems. Dogs apparently have demonstrated as well that they can detect the imminence of an epileptic seizure minutes before the individual subject to the seizure has any symptoms.

If this research is supported and built upon, this could revolutionize medicine by providing much lower cost alternative ways of detecting diseases than the technologically-based solutions commonly used today. At this stage, the medical establishment still treats these breakthroughs as experimental, and, while interesting, not ready for mainstream use. However, this is an area that probably deserves more funding and a more serious investigative effort.

My understanding is these dogs, which are Labrador retrievers and Portuguese water dogs were not specially bred, but were trained at a relatively low cost and for a relatively limited period of time to achieve detection rates above 85%, with detection errors in the form of false positives occurring only 2% of the time. One interesting question is whether the dogs, with more training, could increase their detection rate and reduce false alarms to near zero.

When we think about dogs this way, we also start to open our minds to the potential of other animals to help us with tasks which have challenged us previously. One social entrepreneur found a way to use rats’ sensory capability to detect land mines. Of course, we all remember the metaphor of the “canary in the coal mine.” But dogs clearly have more potential to be our best friends than any of us had previously imagined.