From detecting cancer to helping to beat depression, there is seemingly no end to the healing power of dogs.

By Graham Cox

There are countless reasons why we so readily speak of dogs and humans in the same breath. Their special genius at reading our gestures and understanding our communicative intentions makes them so good at being in a partnership with us that there is no end to the scope for co-operation. The qualities that make them invaluable in the field enable them to be no less effective at much else besides.

After all, the best known of the many charities that bring dogs into a supportive relationship with humans, Guide Dogs (formerly The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association), traces its origins back to 1931 when Muriel Crooke and Rosamund Bond organised the training of the first four British guide dogs from a small lock-up garage in Wallasey, Merseyside. Now the organisation is responsible for around 8,000 dogs, it breeds more than 1,300 guide dog pups each year and there are nearly 4,800 guide dog owners in the UK.

The amazing work of labs and retrievers

During that time the organisation has closely monitored its breeding programmes. After years of struggle, Derek Freeman turned the tide and, when he retired, the success rate from his breeding programme stood at 80 per cent. The most consistent success was achieved, as it happens, with first-cross matings of labradors and golden retrievers. In Barking Up The Right Tree, which was published in 1991, Derek makes some very perceptive comments about the breeds that have been central to the success story he ushered in.

With goldens, for instance, willingness can sometimes dry up, and when it does it is sometimes difficult for a blind person to cope with. This was, he says, often termed ‘stubbornness’ but “a better term is ‘lack of generosity’. Golden retrievers are intelligent, they know what life is about and individuals soon get to know what they can get away with. It is a breed that is easily offended and when their generosity or willingness is withdrawn it can sometimes be difficult to restore.”

The healing power of dogs

Hearing Dogs for the Deaf was launched at Crufts in 1982 and PAT dogs – Pets as Therapy – followed the year after. Though not a PAT dog as such, I well remember Mary Lamb telling me around that time of her frequent visits to a nursing home near her house in Malpas, Cheshire, with her Lambdale Labradors. Here, FTCh Lambdale Sammy induced a Polish ex-prisoner of war to speak after year upon year of total silence.

Dogs have remarkable powers and in America, too, PAWS – Pets are Wonderful Support – brought together the vast number of charitable organisations in the San Francisco area in 1986 and persuaded the food bank to carry pet food and pet-related products. This work made them aware of a more fundamental need, and they plunged into the business of helping very ill people keep their pets. Time and again dogs proved themselves good comforters and excellent listeners and this first ‘human-animal support service’ was soon followed by others.

No end to the kinds of tasks dogs can do

Bonnie Bergin who founded the Assistance Dog Institute, like Derek Freeman, found that golden/labrador crosses were most suited to providing services for the disabled. More specifically, she found that the lighter-coated representatives of those breeds retained their neotenized – or childlike – traits, while the darker colours developed more independence. Assistance Dogs learn something like 90 commands and Bergin is firmly of the view that “there is no end to the kinds of tasks that dogs can do”.

We’re used, by now, to the extent of their repertoire, which includes turning lights off and on, opening doors, pulling wheelchairs, helping their partner to get dressed, answering the phone and so on. People with service dogs reported time and again that they no longer felt like a person with a disability. Their dog was a great leveller leading other people to treat them as just another person: and that is a very substantial bonus over and above the practical assistance.

Our sense of smell multiplied by 10,000

It’s no surprise to find when we turn to consider more recently discovered capabilities that the extraordinary scenting powers of dogs are at the heart of the many things they can reliably do. Frustrated at the vagueness with which the relative scenting powers of dogs and humans were characterised, Dr Jim Walker, head of the Sensory Research Institute at Florida State University, set out in 2002 to discover the threshold to a dog’s abilities. He used n-amyl acetate (nAA), a chemical that he diluted one part to 10, then one to 100, one to 1,000 and so on. He found that a dog can detect chemicals at one ten-thousandth to one one-hundred-thousandth the concentrations that humans can. So, at a minimum, dogs can smell 10,000 times better than humans.

Better than MRI at detecting cancer

Despite the scepticism of others, Dr Walker was convinced dogs could pick up the scent of cancer. In Cambridge, England, the retired orthopaedic surgeon Dr John Church designed tests in which dogs were used to identify urine samples from patients who had cancer. Though he could not report that the results from his meticulous study were conclusive, experiences during the training phase where dogs identified a case which neither doctors nor laboratory tests had picked up alerted the team to the possibilities.

Other researchers confirmed them. Drs Michael McCulloch and Nicolas Broffman who founded California’s Pine Street Clinic believed that minute scents of lung cancer and breast cancer must be carried on a person’s breath. How to measure it was the challenge and once that was cracked a major study with over 12,000 separate scent trials was conducted in 2003. The results were astounding. Dogs with three weeks of training could detect cancer better than MRI scanners, chest x-rays and sputum cytology. The dog’s diagnostic performance was not affected by the disease stage of cancer patients, age, smoking, or the most recently eaten meal. The results of the study were written up in 2006 and research continued to counter the predictable response of many in the medical profession who argued that the priority should be to find out how a dog does it so that a machine could be built that would replicate their extraordinary competence.

Amazing early warning sensors

Evidence from another medical scenario pointed to dogs’ ability to support and diagnose. Patients started to claim their dogs could predict their epileptic seizures. Again doctors were sceptical, but the evidence was compelling. As always, though, research showed the process of alerting to be a complex one in that the effectiveness of seizure-alerting dogs seemed to depend greatly on the ability of the human to recognise and respond to the dog’s behaviour. That said, a mixed-breed seven-year-old could sense an impending hypoglycemic episode even when her owner was asleep.

How dogs do it remains something of a mystery. Do they detect subtle changes in their owner’s behaviour or movements, or are they somehow aware of changing brainwaves? Notwithstanding these possibilities, it seems increasingly likely that it is the dog’s ability to detect changes of scent that is at work. One case reported in Sharon Sakson’s book Paws and Effect even claims that when her dogs – Akitas weighing 100 pounds – alert her they do so at different levels. “If it’s going to be a mild attack, she’ll lightly touch me. She nudges me. If it’s going to be a bad attack she puts all her weight into it.”

Many believe that such alert dogs select themselves: that is, they show a predisposition that the owner can reinforce if they recognise it. But some other trainers believe that a dog can be taught to alert. Certainly, any breed is capable of doing it and Jennifer Arnold who runs a service dog organisation near Atlanta, Georgia, found that 87 per cent of dogs placed with people with epilepsy or seizure disorders learn to alert within the first year of placement. She used to think the capability was partly down to dogs detecting electrical field changes and partly down to odour, but now thinks it purely a matter of smell.

Treating depression

Dogs can be enormously supportive in cases of depression too; their presence calms and their ability to bond unconditionally helps to bolster self esteem. In countless other ways, as well, they can reduce isolation and loneliness and demand structure in a life that may be otherwise chronically adrift. The scope and the pitfalls are, alike, immense. Dogs that are alert to every behavioural nuance may, by their reactions, just as easily amplify the sense of disjunction and incapability that is so disabling.

Perfect partners

The great thing now is that people are increasingly aware of the considerable contribution that dogs can make across a broad spectrum of conditions and circumstances. There truly is, it seems, hardly anything they can’t do and some things that only they can do. The only mystery, perhaps, as Jennifer Arnold puts it, is why dogs continue to work so hard for us. And in answering that we return, inevitably, to our beginning to note yet again that they are geniuses at forming partnerships. And we, it should be added, are so fortunate to be the beneficiaries.