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Canines against disease

Specially trained dogs can help seizure sufferers and perhaps identify coronavirus infections

A dog trains at the “scent wheel” at Penn Vet Working Dog Center School of Veterinary Medicine University of Pennsylvania

Canines against disease
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Man’s best friend, coronavirus’s worst enemy? Dogs have long proven themselves adept at helping the blind and comforting the downcast, but now medically trained service dogs are helping in ways you may not have known—by potentially detecting the coronavirus and responding to epileptic seizures.

Dog trainers have previously taught canines to detect “volatile organic compounds” linked with diseases including ovarian cancer, prostate cancer, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, and malaria. A dog’s nose can have as many as 300 million smell receptors, giving it an advantage for detecting very subtle aromas. (The more common breeds for medical detection training include Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, and German shepherds.)

As it turns out, subtle aromatic traits could also offer early warning of the presence of a coronavirus infection, despite a person’s lack of symptoms.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine are training eight Labradors to detect coronavirus infection in patient body fluid samples, according to Live Science. If the training proves successful, such detection dogs could be a valuable resource in preventing community spread of the coronavirus by identifying asymptomatic persons unaware of their own infection.

At the University of Helsinki in Finland, a pilot study has already shown preliminary success in training dogs to identify urine from persons infected with the coronavirus. Commenting on another canine COVID-19 detection study currently underway in the United Kingdom, James Logan of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine told The Washington Post, “Each individual dog can screen up to 250 people per hour.”

In contrast to disease detection, seizure detection and supportive care can help many of the approximately 3.4 million Americans who endure epileptic seizures every year. Seizure episodes, lasting from a few seconds to several minutes, impair a person’s level of consciousness and threaten his ability to engage safely in activities such as cooking, work, school, and recreation.

A trained seizure response dog can sense when its owner is having a seizure. Depending on its training, it may bark to alert caregivers, activate an electronic alarm, or move in close to its owner to provide physical support and prevent the person from falling. Afterward, the dog can assist its owner by picking up dropped objects or retrieving medication and other needed items.

While such dogs are not trained to predict seizure activity, some clients have reported their seizure response dogs eventually developed an ability to alert their owners to an impending seizure. In a 2004 survey of 45 dog owners whose children had epilepsy, about 40 percent of the families reported their dogs showed seizure-sensing behaviors, such as moving physically closer to the child, pawing the child or parent, or barking to get the owner’s attention, ahead of the actual seizure.

Professional service canine trainer Rebecca Golian says seizure response dogs can also “increase a person’s confidence to go out in public; just knowing another being is there is an encouragement.”

—Michael Malament is a graduate of the WJI mid-career course

Michael Malament Michael is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute mid-career course.


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It's not surprising that some dogs develop an ability to anticipate seizures or detect illness.  I know plenty of average owners whose dogs know when they're ill with even a common cold.  I was surprised not to see more herding breeds, e.g., border collies, Australian shepherds, (one Sheltie mix was listed), since they were bred to work closely with their handlers, though often from a distance, and consequently have sensitive natures, must pick up on subtle nonverbal cues, and learn very quickly.

Of course, the linked survey went on to say more research is being done on the ability of dogs to detect human brain activity.  Pardon my skepticism, but that doesn't surprise me coming from biologists who hold to the worldview of naturalism.  I think instead it speaks mightily to our Creator, who both created these wonderful creatures and blessed his special creation, the imago Dei, with the ability to selectively breed them to be such a help to us.