Meet Alfie and Charlie—the newest weapons doctors may be using to fight cancer in the future.
The two puppies, a Labrador Retriever–Poodle mix and a German Shepherd Dog, respectively, are part of a training program to learn to detect cancer in humans through a new program at University of California, Davis.
Dogs have been proven to be able to detect certain types of cancer at earlier stages than current screening methods can. These dogs will learn to sniff saliva, urine, and breath to see if volatile organic compounds, a waste product of cancer, are present, explains Dina Zaphiris, the dog trainer working with the physicians. The first type of cancer samples they’ll be working on are oral and laryngeal cancers. Researchers hope to be screening patients by 2018 and to eventually expand to other types of cancer.
“Our new canine colleagues represent a unique weapon in the battle against cancer,” Peter Belafsky, professor of otolaryngology, says in a press release. “It’s the first of its kind at UC Davis, and the dogs’ incredible talent for scent detection could offer us humans a real jump on diagnosing cancer much earlier and thus save many more lives.”
This type of screening will be particularly useful for cancers that are more difficult to detect in early stages, like ovarian, pancreatic, and stomach cancers.
The puppies were selected and are being trained by Zaphiris, who runs the InSitu Foundation in Chico, California, and has successfully trained more than 30 dogs to detect various types of cancer over the past 15 years. She is also collaborating with Duke University for a similar cancer-detection program.
The trick, she explains, is finding the right dogs for the job. “I was looking for a dog that was social, high contact, and wanted to come forward and play and earn rewards—but one that wasn’t the one in the litter with the highest drive because they’ll be working with few distractions in the lab.”
Charlie was an easy pick. “I love German Shepherds for this type of work,” she says. “For them, it’s more than just the nose, it’s a matter of temperament. German Shepherds have tenacity. They’re tough. They love to work, and they’re not easily startled.”
Because the dogs will live with the doctors conducting the research after they complete 18 months of training, she had to find a hypoallergenic breed (or mixed breed, as she settled on) as the second dog because of a doctor’s wife’s allergy. “Alfie bonded with me in a confident way and showed me he wanted to work,” she told AKC.org.
The dogs will complete training in mid-2016.
Eventually, Zaphiris adds, the university wants to create an endowment and comprehensive center dedicated to this type of work and research. She hopes to offer a certification program in the future through which other dog trainers can be taught her 371-step process to training dogs for this type of work.
Photo at top: Stewie, also trained by Zaphiris for a similar program at Duke University, alerts on a cancer sample