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If you’re a traveller, you’ve probably seen detection dogs at airports, sniffing around for contraband and other illegal items coming across the borders. Service dogs have been part of law enforcement for years and are one way we’ve been taking advantage of one of the most powerful detection devices in the world: dogs’ noses. More powerful than any technology existing today, a dog’s nose is key to finding things that may be imperceptible to humans or even sensitive electronic equipment. University researchers, law enforcement groups, and specialized dog handler organizations have been working together to find new ways to make the most of dogs and their sniffing ability. Here are five things that dogs are being trained to detect and why.
During the early stages of cancer, cells change, altering odorants that are given off from the human body. Rather than using chemical and nanotechnology analysis to diagnose patients, researchers at University of Pennsylvania are turning to dogs to detect these odorants early. Dog handlers use ovarian cancer patients’ tissue and blood samples for training, which could help facilitate early cancer detection through inexpensive and less-invasive blood tests in the future. Penn Vet founder and executive director Cynthia M. Otto hopes that dogs will be trained to narrow down specific odors within two years. On the other side of the world in Israel, internist Dr. Uri Yoel is also working with dogs to detect lung cancer and melanoma, through similar biomarkers.
As aerial creatures of the night, bats seem like the last things that dogs can sniff out. But in 2012, dogs were trained to track the Florida Bonnetted Bat (Eumops Floridanus) by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who proposed putting these winged Florida natives on the endangered species list. The bats, which are the largest species in the southeastern U.S., are known for their distinct hooded ears, and scientists were hoping to find and protect them in the wild. They had been tracking sound wavelengths of the bats’ calls, but had been unable to locate them beyond manmade bat boxes. Exhausting all technological capabilities, they turned to EcoDogs to assist with their research. At Auburn University, handler Bart Rogers has been training dogs to detect guano (a.k.a. bat droppings) so that scientists can then track the bats. Rogers says, “If we’re going to bring numbers back up, we have to find where these bats like to inhabit. Unfortunately, these dogs are mostly detecting around dead trees, and if we’re cutting those trees down to prevent forest fires, which are a huge problem in Florida, we may be cutting down the roosts of these bats. Whether you like bats or not, they’re an important part of our ecosystem because they keep insects in check, like mosquitoes.”
Image via Jason Dewitt/EcoDogs
Dogs are also helping the timber industry by sniffing out invasive fungi that can prematurely kill off pine trees in the South. The Southern pine beetle is known for spreading invasive fungi by clogging the roots of trees with larvae so that nutrients can’t get to them, which has caused many pine trees to die in Alabama. This has drastically affected the timber industry, which depends on selling trees that live for 40 years or more. Jason Dewitt, a trainer through Auburn University’s EcoDog program says, “Before detection dogs, timber companies did not know if their trees were infected until they showed above-ground symptoms. So what we’ve done is train the dogs to detect when the beetles feed on the roots so that land managers can decide to turn their trees into pulp and paper, rather than waiting around until the trees die.” With this patented technique of detecting invasive fungi underground, DeWitt and his team worked with Dr. Lori Eckhardt, Associate Research Professor of Integrated Forest Pathology and Entomology at Auburn. They realized they could potentially make waves in the wine industry. “Because invasive fungi spreads through the grafting of roots underground, it can kill acres of grapes unless it’s stopped, so there is potential to dig up infected plants before the fungi spreads to others,” Dewitt says.
When you think of dogs sniffing out other animals, you probably don’t think of snakes. But in Florida’s Everglades National Park, Burmese pythons are killing rare birds, bobcats, deer, fish, and even the endangered Florida Panther. As a result, you’ll rarely see small animals in this protected wilderness area. In urban areas that border the park, the pythons also have the potential to injure people. Although 15 feet long, they’re hard to detect because of their ability to hide under water. However, with the Army Corps of Engineers, South Florida Water Management District, and Auburn's Center for Forest Sustainability, EcoDogs have been trained to acknowledge the presence of pythons within five feet of their noses. This has helped dispatchers capture the invasive species so that they can track them during breeding season and euthanize females before fertilization.
Paul Waggoner, Associate Director of the K9 Detection Research Institute at Auburn University is training Vapor Wake Dogs to detect the scent trails explosives leave in the air, specifically through crowded public spaces, like the metro or malls. Working in a gas dynamics lab at Penn State, Waggoner was inspired by seeing how heat was directed behind a person as they moved. He trained dogs to detect and follow the scent trails that are left behind in the air. In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, this method could change how we ensure public safety, and has been deployed through the Amtrak police and TSA. Waggoner says, “Time and time again it’s been proven that dogs are the most capable detection tools.”