Canine Scent Detection: Frequently Asked Questions

The following are general frequently asked questions:

Can one of your dogs sniff me and tell me if I have cancer?
Unfortunately, it is not currently possible to be “screened” by the dogs involved in our research. At this time, it is also not recommended that dogs be used as a primary screening method for cancer; there are simply too many uncertainties and vagaries with the concept to make it a viable or meaningful tool for detection right now. It is our hope, however, that the concepts explored in our research may help develop more accurate cancer screening methods in the future.

Can I meet the dogs?
The dogs on our trained dog team are “at work” training for this study and need their full concentration during this time. Therefore, they are not available for visits from the public. Occasionally, we seek volunteers to work with the trained dog team for light equipment set-up, tear down, and to help walk the dogs. If you are available to volunteer on Mondays from 10am-3pm please call (415) 342-0886 to ask about volunteering with the trained dog team.

What do I do if my dog starts demonstrating unusual behavior around me?
Numerous anecdotal reports have been published and televised documenting individual cases in which dogs began to display persistent and animated behavior around specific body locations on their owners. These behaviors, on subsequent medical evaluation, proved to be accurate, and in some cases life-saving, early warning signs of cancers such as those of the breast and skin (melanoma). Therefore, should your dog display such behavior around a person, we do recommend medical follow-up.

Can you teach me to train my own dog to detect cancer?
While many people have expressed interest in training their dogs for cancer detection, there are various legal and ethical considerations one must address prior to engaging in this sort of training, including what a person would then do with a dog who has received such training. Our own training is still in the research stages…we are not at the point where we’re screening actual people for cancer just yet.

My dog detected my cancer. How can I share my story with you?
We’re always interested to hear personal anecdotes. Please send your story through our Contact Us page.

Do you have any research programs/facilities in my area?
Our training takes place exclusively in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The following are frequently asked questions about our current research project on canine scent detection of ovarian cancer:

What do women breath through?
Women breath into a disposable “rTube” handheld device which is similar in shape to a snorkel and is connected to a commercial grade air purifier. Most women relax or read while holding the rTube and breathing into it at a natural and relaxed pace.

How are the breath samples stored?
The breath samples are stored in a subzero freezer at -40 degrees until they are analyzed by Dr. Solouki’s laboratory, and tested by our dogs.

Why are you not using the same breath collection devices from your previous study?
Our first study on exhaled breath and cancer detection used a simple tube filled with polypropylene fibers to which the odors on the breath adhered. This was very useful in training dogs, but not suitable for chemical analysis (which will take place at the University of Maine).

What are the various factors you’re controlling for?
Family history, age, diet, and making sure the background air is all the same for each person, by using an air purifier to provide very clean air as breath samples are being given. We’re also excluding smokers from this study.

Why are you recruiting women who don’t have cancer such as endometriosys or olycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)?
Early proteomics biomarker studies were confounded by markers of inflammation, and so those studies could only conclude “something is wrong”, but not “it’s inflammation and not cancer.” In our current study, we’re using both healthy controls and controls with endometriosis or PCOS as comparison groups. We are seeking to discover exhaled biomarkers that will accurately distinguish women who have ovarian cancer, from both health controls and controls with endometriosis or PCOS.

Where can we learn more about the study?
The Pine Street Foundation holds various lectures and events about this research. Please visit our events page and sign up to receive email updates.

The following are frequently asked questions about our past research project on canine scent detection of breast and lung cancer:

Are the dogs smelling cancer or just people?
Dogs and patients do not meet directly. Breath samples are gathered and then, at a separate location, the breath samples are presented to the dogs for training and testing. Additionally, during the entire double-blinded testing phase, upon which our data will be based, all breath samples sniffed by dogs, for both cases and controls, were from completely different subjects not previously encountered by the dogs during training or single-blinded testing.

What about the smells of smoking?
Smokers were present in both lung cancer patients and the control groups. The strong results we found remained even after accounting for confounding by smoking in our analysis.

What about the effect of chemotherapy on body odor?
Breath samples were taken before starting conventional treatment.

Weren’t the cases and controls very different from each other?
Yes. This is correct and a valid criticism of our study. In the long course of developing a new diagnostic method, the first step is to see if the method can distinguish known cases from controls. This preliminary step is then followed by testing in which the new method is compared head-to-head with existing diagnostic methods and then examining people whose true health status is not known at the time of the study.

Do you really expect dogs to be used in hospitals to detect cancer?
Our study provides compelling evidence that cancers hidden deep within the body can be detected simply by examining the odors of a person’s breath. The fact that it was dogs who did this does not detract from the novelty of our findings. The dog’s brain and nose is currently one of the most sophisticated odor detection devices on the planet…technology now has to rise to meet that challenge and it remains to be seen whether chemical analysis can meet the level of the dogs.

What are the next steps?
The direction our research is taking, and should take, is toward the development of an “electronic nose”. This sort of device would be much more likely to be incorporated into clinical practice. In the end, diagnostic breath analysis deserves further rigorous study, both through additional work with dogs and through chemical analysis towards the goal of understanding precisely what compounds it is that the dogs are detecting by scent. These are the questions our next generation trial will address, and for which we are currently seeking funding.

What sorts of dogs did you use in this study? What were your selection criteria?
Five dogs, ages 7-18 months, were chosen out of a total of 13: three Labrador retrievers (two males and one female) and two Portuguese water dogs (one male and one female). Dogs were provided by local dog owners and by Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, Calif. Our selection criteria called for dogs over six months old with basic obedience training typically given to household pets, as defined by the American Kennel Club, who were judged by the experimenters to be eager to sniff objects and respond to commands.

What were the names of the dogs?
Kobi: Labrador retriever (yellow)
Isabelle: Portuguese water dog
Court: Labrador retriever (black)
Estelle: Labrador retriever (yellow)
Django: Portuguese water dog

How can I get my dog involved in your research?
Should we receive funding to continue research in this field, we will likely be recruiting additional dogs from the San Francisco Bay Area. An announcement will be made through our newsletter, so be sure to sign up to receive email updates. Additionally, the Pine Street Foundation is available to discuss this research with individuals or groups who may be interested in pursuing a collaboration leading toward grant-funded clinical research.

Can I have your dogs screen me to see if I have cancer?
Unfortunately, it is not currently possible to be “screened” by the dogs involved in our research. At this time, it is also not recommended that dogs be used as a primary screening method for cancer. It is our hope, however, that the concepts explored in our research may help develop more accurate cancer screening methods in the future. Nevertheless, numerous anecdotal reports have been published and televised documenting individual cases in which dogs began to display persistent and animated behavior around specific body locations on their owners. These behaviors, on subsequent medical evaluation, proved to be accurate, and in some cases life-saving, early warning signs of cancers such as those of the breast and skin (melanoma). Therefore, should your dog display such behavior, we do recommend medical follow-up.

How can I train my dog to detect cancer?
The methods used in our study are similar to how you might train your dog to sit or roll over. We specifically used “clicker training”, a reward-based method of teaching in which the dog is given food treats for offering the desired behavior. What is more difficult is obtaining breath samples from cancer patients; there are various state and federal requirements regarding medical research that must be followed. There are also important ethical and scientific issues that must be addressed before engaging in this type of training. For example, what would a person do with the dog after training is complete? Would the dog be used to screen people for cancer? How would the dogs’ accuracy and consistency be determined? What would a person who is screened then do with the information gleaned from the dogs? Could or should the results be trusted? Worse than a false positive (where a dog indicates there is cancer present when no disease actually exists) would be a false negative (where the dog indicates no cancer is present when in fact there is disease). Because of the various logistical and ethical considerations associated with this type of research, it is recommended that individuals engaging in this type of training follow appropriate scientific and ethical guidelines such as those documented in our study. Additionally, the Pine Street Foundation is available to discuss this research with individuals or groups who may be interested in pursuing a collaboration leading toward grant-funded clinical research.

HOW YOU CAN GET INVOLVED
There are many ways you can help us to further research in this emerging field:
» Funding. Support from individuals is incredibly important. If you are interested in continuing this research, please make a donation. 92% of our funding comes from individuals like you. Additionally, should you know of any foundations or individuals who might also be interested in supporting us, please pass the word along.
» Replicate Our Study. For researchers, we actively encourage you to learn more about our current study and to build and improve upon it through new research.
» Get the Word Out. The more people who know about this work, the better. Please share us with your friends and colleagues.

QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS
Have comments or additional questions? Please contact us.