How the canine sense of smell is improving the world

A close-up look at two unique ways in which dogs’ incredible sense of smell is helping people – and wildlife.

It’s no secret that dogs excel with their sense of smell. Dog lovers and scientists alike have long recognized that canine noses can be used for tasks that go far beyond sniffing out long-lost bones. From detecting bombs to tracking earthquake victims to targeting evidence left behind by devastating fires, scent dogs play an ever-widening multitude of roles. In this article, we’ll focus on a couple of unique ways in which the canine sense of smell is helping not just humans, but other animals as well.

Helping endangered species

Did you know that canine olfactory powers are being used track the movements of endangered species, in order to help researchers learn more about them? Conservation Canines is a program established by the University of Washington to discern the many concurrent pressures facing wildlife over a large geographic range. This is done by using dogs to track the scat (feces) of targeted animals.

“The dogs – mostly from shelters — are trained to sniff out the scat of hard-to-find wildlife that researchers are trying to study,” says author and canine cognitive scientist, Alexandra Horowitz. She points to the work of Dr. Samuel Wasser, who started training dogs for the program 20 years ago. “Tallying all the bears across thousands of acres might be hard, but a dog can be trained to locate the poop they leave behind.”

Conservation Canines has worked internationally with species ranging from the Pacific pocket mouse to tigers and whales (see sidebar). The program combines the precision and efficiency of detection dogs to readily locate wildlife scat samples, with science’s ability to extract a wide variety of genetic, physiological, toxicological and dietary indicators from the samples. These indicators helps researchers assess the numbers and distribution of endangered species, and how they are coping in terms of their health and resource use in the face of the environmental pressures they’re dealing with.

“Not only is this great scientific teamwork, it’s a perfect way to make use of the canine fascination with poo!” says Alexandra.

Sniffing out cancer

The human medical field is also benefiting from the canine sense of smell. For example, research is revealing that dogs can detect the odor signatures of various types of cancer – an exciting finding that could have major impacts on medicine’s ability to diagnosis and track this insidious disease. Trained dogs can detect melanoma as well as colon, prostate, lung, breast and ovarian cancers by sniffing people’s skin, bodily fluids or breath.

Cancer detection dogs can identify lung cancer from a person’s breath; one study found that a trained dog demonstrated a very high rate of accuracy in distinguishing between the breath of people with and without lung cancer. These dogs are also able to detect ovarian cancer by sniffing blood samples, and prostate cancer from a person’s urine.

Canine cancer detection shows a lot of promise, but further investigation is necessary to validate it for use in clinical practice. Researchers continue exploring the possibility of using these specially-trained medical detection dogs in the diagnosis and tracking of human cancers, so it may not be long before they become part of the cancer diagnosis process.

Alexandra sees no limits to how dogs could use their sense of smell to better society and the world. “Dogs are being used in all manner of ways – from detecting cows in estrous to sniffing out illegal cell phones in prison. And I’m sure more uses will be found for their terrific noses!”