Dogs Healing Humans

 There’s no argument about the fact that dogs have a positive effect on people who are ill. They cuddle when we ask for it, entertain us with amusing antics, urge us to get more exercise, bolster us with their blind faith, and put us to shame with their stoicism. And then there’s that thing they do with their eyes! Dogs have a truly magical ability to comfort people who are suffering, just by the sheer goodness pouring out from inside them.

Now, however, dogs are venturing out of the realm of magic and sticking their noses into conventional, evidence-based medicine. Recent studies have once again confirmed that dogs can identify the scent of abnormal cancer cells. Previous work already showed that ovarian, prostate, colon, and breast cancer could be identified from blood and tissue samples, even a puff of the patient’s breath. This is kind of old news, but with each successive experiment, the dogs perform even better than before. It showcases the fact that the canine sense of smell is up to a million times more acute than ours and even outperforms the most sensitive electronic device developed for this purpose. Cancer detection dogs can sometimes even identify disease earlier than conventional testing.

Another idea still in its infancy, but no less amazing, is the purported ability of some dogs to predict seizure activity in human epileptic patients. This concept has been floating around through anecdotal reports for quite some time, but a controlled study earlier this year finally yielded some scientific proof. Five shelter dogs completed a unique training program where they were taught to identify something that’s imperceptible to humans and to every electronic device currently in existence—the scent of epileptic seizures. The dogs were trained to signal a handler at the first sign of this invisible, and potentially fictional, substance—derived from swabbing the skin of real epileptics during their actual seizure. They were then asked to sift through swabs taken from complete strangers and pick out the one collected during a genuine seizure.

The dogs jumped into their study with all four feet and immediately started hitting home runs. From the outset, their results were much more convincing than most of the science you see reported on the nightly news. These were the kind of results that get people in lab coats cranking the music and sipping champagne out of plastic glasses. A new compound was born, one that is exclusively produced during seizure activity. Like the “smell of cancer”, the existence of this compound can’t be proven in any human-derived way (yet), but we know it is there… because a dog told us so. As you may or may not know, there is no lying dog.

It hasn’t (yet) been shown that a dog can predict an oncoming seizure by detecting this odor or by some other means, but these five dogs gave us a critical piece to the puzzle—the seizure particle, if you will. Epilepsy research can now advance in a new direction, and it will be a humble shelter dog that led the way.

Dr. M.S. Regan