Photo by Everett Collection
Stories about service dogs with lifesaving “predictor” skills have been popping up in the news lately — take Shawnee, an epilepsy service dog belonging to Texas teen Jessica Hayes. After years of staying by her side, alerting her to seizures mere minutes before they occurred and ushering her to safety, the pooch donned a cap and gown to join her master in her high-school graduation ceremony in June. And in San Antonio, a Labrador-golden retriever mix named Taxi who has been sounding seizure warnings for 14-year-old Rachel Benke, recently had his furry mug photographed for her high school yearbook.
Science has substantiated these loyal lifesavers. For example, in May, an Italian researcher named Gian Luigi Taverna reported that dogs were able to detect prostate cancer in urine samples with 98 percent accuracy rate. And other powerful pooches have been known to predict scenarios from dangerous drops in a diabetic’s blood sugar level to the onset of an autistic child’s panicked tantrum, in each case, helping their owners avert disaster.
So how do these dogs do it?
“That’s the one thing nobody can one hundred percent figure out,” Karen Shirk, a service-dog trainer and founder of the Ohio-based 4 Paws for Ability, tells Yahoo Health. “I call it magic.” Shirk’s organization trains and places more than 100 service dogs a year skilled in autism, mobility, and seizure assistance and diabetic and food allergen alerts among children and injured vets. Though she won’t divulge the organization’s training secrets, Shirk admits that grooming dogs to be medical sleuths in the first place is controversial.
Paws with a Cause in Michigan, for example, which places at least 80 service dogs a year in homes that require mobility and hearing assistance, seizure response, and comfort for children with autism, does not believe in medically training dogs to do what she believes is innate. “We do not train because we don’t think it’s something we can fabricate — it has to come around from the deep relationship between the dog and the human,” foundation spokesperson Deb Davis tells Yahoo Health. “A person who has a seizure will have a subtle change of behavior beforehand — a tiny tic, an eye twitch, a lip smacking. Usually there’s something physical that the dog can zero in on. They’re together 24-7, so when something different happens, that’s when [the dog’s] innate ability kicks in.”
But L.A. based celebrity dog trainer Dina Zaphiris says that in addition to the physical cues, there’s a simple scientific explanation for why a canine is able to know when medical emergencies are about to occur: its supersonic sense of smell. “Dogs are absolutely not psychic,” she tells Yahoo Health. “They are keenly in tune with our scent, our subtle facial expressions, and our body movement. I think they’re smelling — not reading our minds.”
A dog’s olfactory abilities are believed to be up to 100,000 times that of humans, Zaphiris notes — and it’s a superpower she’s putting to good use with her latest endeavor, the In Situ Foundation. Through the non-profit she founded in 2009, she trains cancer-detecting Beagles, German Shepherds and various mixed breeds. She’s currently trying to get FDA approval on a canine medical scent detection kit; to use it, patients would exhale into a tube, which would then be sniffed by trained dogs for volatile organic compounds (VOCs), found in the breath of both lung cancer and colon cancer patients, even in the early stages of the disease.
Zaphiris notes that Taverna’s prostate cancer findings represent the largest study of cancer-sniffing dogs yet. “There’s evidence of diseases carrying certain scents dating back to the days of ancient Chinese medicine,” she says. “And when patients have stage-4 cancer, their whole body emits a different odor. So the question is, ‘Can we train a dog formally to detect early-stage cancer?’” That answer, she believes, is a resounding yes.
Still, most research proving that dogs can detect medical emergencies has been on a small scale, and some skepticism remains about its larger-scale accuracy. The national Epilepsy Foundation, for example, notes that while there is plenty of anecdotal evidence about alert dogs, the organization “believes much more research is necessary in this field of ‘seizure predicting dogs, and cautions consumers to be very wary of any claims or programs that offer to train or provide ‘seizure predicting’ service animals.”
Lawrence Myers, a professor of veterinary neuroscience at the Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine in Alabama, has a similar attitude. “I think there’s some real promise with dogs detecting certain types of cancer, but I seriously doubt at a 98 percent accuracy,” he says, noting a need for larger studies. As for canines sniffing out seizures, diabetes and other emergencies, he notes, “In a lot of cases, I think it’s wishful thinking.”