The Spanish sighthound Kössi was found as a puppy in a cardboard box on a Malagan highway. Now the 7-year-old dog is a top-notch sniffing dog, with a nose for an important cause. Kössi is sniffing samples and tries to find cancer from them. Dogs are superior in finding cancer when compared to machines.
Kössi is ready to start his job immediately and can’t wait for permission to do it. He’s fussing around like any other dog, sometimes jumping on the lap and licking the face of the reporter.
Shortly the task is prepared and Kössi can start his work. A row of urine samples have been set on the floor and one of them is from a cancer patient. Kössi’s task is to find that sample. After 10 seconds of huffing and puffing, Kössi has found his nose deep in one of the samples. He gets his salary well worth in freeze-dried chicken liver and starts munching happily.
From a rescue dog to a research assistant
Kössi is a 7-year-old Spanish sighthound. He was found in a cardboard box on a Malagan highway as a puppy.
From there he ended up in a dog pound where dogs are kept alive only for a few weeks if a new home is not found. By chance, Kössi’s rescue was noted to Susanna Paavilainen who was looking for a new pet. Who could resist this droopy-eyed puppy?
Paavilainen had symptoms from poor indoor air in the 90’s. That’s why she was interested if one could train their dog as a mold dog.
Kössi was clearly interested in smells and was always walking with his nose in the ground when outside. When Paavilainen studied to be a sniffing dog trainer she started to figure out what dogs could smell for research purposes.
At the moment Kössi is a top-notch sniffing dog who works with a freeze-dried horse slices salary at the cancer research of HUS. In addition to cancer sniffing Kössi works with Paavilainen in finding bed bugs from apartments.
The hunger for freeze-dried dog treats as a requirement
The main task for a cancer dog is indicating the cancer sample. Dogs do not work at laboratories or hospitals, but in their own associations which in turn cooperate with different researchers.
Paavilainen founded Wise nose - a Finnish sniffing dog association - with her course mates. She highlights responsibility and research cooperation in cancer dog activities.
Smell detection dogs must always pass a double-blind test. Anna Hielm-Björkman, assistant professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Helsinki, and Jouko Vepsäläinen, professor of chemistry at the University of Eastern Finland, are responsible for the smell detection training for the Wise nose dogs.
Smell detection is a natural skill for a dog. The only requirement besides the tendency to smell things is the need for treats. A suitable dog will learn to recognize a cancer sample in a few weeks. Dogs of all races can learn smell detection.
Volunteers can also bring a sample
There are 12 dogs in the Wise nose of Viikki, Helsinki, some of which are still in training. Urine samples from volunteers are used in training.
– It’s always good to have something new when training with dogs so that it doesn’t become a routine. Dogs get bored very fast, Paavilainen says.
If the dog suddenly indicates a volunteer's sample, it will be noted to the sample giver. After that, it is the volunteer’s responsibility to seek medical help.
– Surprising results have to be confirmed in further tests. Dogs also do not recognize the type of cancer.
Hajuerottelu on koiralle synnynnäinen taito. Kössi on omistajansa Susanna Paavilaisen mukaan ollut aina kiinnostunut hajuista.
Smell detection is a natural skill for a dog. According to his owner, Susanna Paavilainen, Kössi has always been interested in smells.
What does dog smell in cancer?
At the moment the most interesting question is what dogs really smell when they indicate a cancer sample. It is not yet known what makes dogs react to cancer. Instead, Jouko Vepsäläinen, professor of chemistry, does not doubt the certainty of the results.
– In practice, a well-trained dog has a near 100% chance of recognizing a cancer sample.
Vepsäläinen’s research at the University of Eastern Finland looks for a cancer odor molecule or molecular mixture. The source of the odor is searched by diluting the concentration of the test sample.
It was found in research that a few dozen odor molecules are sufficient for a dog, whereas instrumental methods require up to a million times more. If you compare a dog’s sense of smell to laboratory equipment, it is easy to declare a winner.
– Instrumental methods require a truckload of sand particles, but an untrained dog needs only a coffee cup worth. For Kössi, it is enough to have a few specks of sand on a teaspoon.
Superiority also causes problems. In order to verify the odor perception of dogs, the technology needs to evolve. Currently, the sensitivity of research equipment is not even close to the dog's sense of smell.
If and when the cancer marker molecule was found, it would mean an improvement in the patients' quality of life, according to Vepsäläinen. Severe cancer treatments could be stopped early enough to be sure that the cancer was gone.
The participation of dogs in medical research has required the elimination of prejudice. Machines and equipment are not always the best, but sometimes a chicken gizzard loving pet will win with precision.
Wisenose has been working mostly with donations and Paavilainen has washed sample containers by hand herself, because they haven’t had enough funds to buy a washing machine. But now they are receiving some relief when Wihuri foundation and Svenska Kulturfonden are there to help them.
The leading urologist of HUS’s Deducer prostate cancer research, Antti Rannikko, thinks that the inclusion of dogs to cancer research is an interesting addition.
Mostly individualized treatments are made for cancer patients, and it is especially important for people with prostate cancer because of the two types of cancer: lethal and harmless. Nowadays the separation of these types is not accurate enough. This causes a risk of under- and overtreatment for the patients.
Kössi and other dogs at Wise nose can already recognize cancer from samples, but now it is being researched if they could recognize the difference in lethal and non-lethal prostate cancer. That would be a huge relief for many patients because it could save them from unnecessary treatment and it would help to determine when the treatment should end. This will require a lot of freeze-dried dog snacks.
What is happening inside a dog’s nose?
Dogs’ noses are usually cold and clammy, but why is their sense of smell so good? First of all, it's about how the nose is formed and secondly the sense of smell is the most important sense to dogs. When people have 5 million smell receptors in their noses dogs have at least 200 million.
What’s going on inside a dog’s nose?
In addition to a normal nose, dogs have another, a vomeronasal organ, which is situated between the nose and soft palate.
When a dog is sniffing another dog’s behind or the urine of a female in heat, it usually takes a lick. The dog transfers the smell sample behind the soft palate using the tongue. This is how a dog uses their vomeronasal nose that is linked to hormones and sexuality.
Often you can see the upper lip and the whole nose moving when a dog or a horse is sniffing. According to Hielm Björkman, a dog can “see” three-dimensionally with its nostrils.
– One nostril tries to find out where the smell came from, while the other figures out what kind of a lady walked by an hour ago and what has she been eating.
Other animals are also used in sniffing
Dogs are not the only animals with exceptional skills. According to Hielm-Björkman African opossums are used in a few African countries to recognize tuberculosis. To train a bee to smell cancer takes only a dozen hours.
Bees and wasps with small sensors can be used as minesweepers in minefields. When a dog is risking its life finding explosives a bee can fly above it. A pig also has a very good sense of smell, says Hielm-Björkman.
– The advantage of a dog compared to other animals is that it is so easy to communicate with it. A dog also likes to please people.
When Kössi, German shepherd Flickan, and Border collie Ami are training on the track, their concentration cannot be messed with. The hardest part is to get them to wait for permission to start sniffing. Could there be a better employee?