By SANETTE TANAKA, Wall Street Journal, July 10, 2012
Many dogs can be trained to sit, fetch and roll over. Now, pups are being trained to detect disease and help patients in distress. Rebecca Johnson, director of the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri, explains how dogs can be useful in the medical field.
Dogs can be trained to detect low blood sugar levels in diabetics by picking up scents that go unnoticed by humans. Upon detection, the dog springs into action—”kind of like sounding an alarm,” Dr. Johnson says. Dogs may nudge the diabetic, fetch a blood-glucose monitoring kit or press a button on the phone to call 911.
Researchers don’t know what exactly enables a dog to detect seizures, but some dogs may notice a certain scent or subtle behavioral change that occurs right before an attack. Teaching a dog to pick up on these signs is difficult, Dr. Johnson says, and many seizure-response dogs simply have an innate ability to recognize when something is wrong. During the attack, dogs can seek help, move dangerous objects out of the way and lie next to the person.
A relatively new type of service dog can aid people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. These dogs typically serve as companions to war veterans. Dogs can help ease the anxiety and panic that often comes with the condition by leading the way around a corner or positioning themselves between people and their handler. In a stressful social situation, the handler can signal the dog, which then barks loudly and gives the handler a reason to make a graceful exit.
Dogs can also put their acute sense of smell to use by identifying certain cancer cells. Dr. Johnson notes that dogs have been trained to pick out bladder cancer cells by sniffing urine samples, while other researchers report that dogs have been able to identify lung and breast cancers by smelling patients’ breath, and melanoma by licking their owners’ skin.
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