Working like a dog

Because a dog’s sense of smell is a thousand times more sensitive than a human’s, canines are regularly used to detect bombs and other explosives. They sniff out illegal drugs and endangered plants, and they can use their snouts to reveal ailments such as cancer, diabetes and seizures.

In England, dogs are used to sniff urine samples and identify which ones come from patients with bladder cancer, says Cynthia Otto, an associate professor of critical care at Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine. Other dogs detect when a person with diabetes has a drop in blood sugar, or when a person who suffers from seizures is about to have an episode.

“It’s sort of like the difference between seeing in black and white and seeing in color,” Otto says. “Dogs smell in color. They are just so incredibly capable of discriminating.”

At the Penn Working Dog Center, Otto and her colleagues are conducting research on dogs that use their noses to uncover all sorts of mysteries. Modeled after the U.S. Army’s former Super Dog program, the goal of the research is to use science to determine how best to select working dogs that will be successful, and to make working dogs healthier and more efficient.

Otto says while certain breeds of dogs are more likely to be used as working dogs, there is no limit to what type of dog can become a good working dog. “There are [desired] characteristics,” she says. “And one of the really important things we want to do is to be able to define those characteristics and be able to look at a dog and say, ‘This dog is going to be a fabulous working dog.’”

Another aspect of her work is identifying dogs in shelters that have the potential to flourish in a working-dog environment. Training can last anywhere from three to six months, and for dogs in breeding programs, training can begin in early puppyhood, almost as soon as they are born.

Otto says the training is “fairly intense,” focusing on obedience, scent discrimination and getting the dogs to maintain their focus and stick to search patterns while working in different environments. “The standards are pretty high,” she says, adding that only dogs that are confident and proficient in all the required behaviors make the cut.

Penn Vet experts have worked with the Philadelphia Police Department, conducting first aid courses for officers and first responders to prepare them in the event that a police or working dog is injured in the field. Recently, Penn Vet’s Matthew J. Ryan Hospital treated Diablo, a New Castle County, Del. police dog shot twice in the line of duty.

Otto says while the Working Dog Center is not currently studying patrol dogs, much of the information the Center gathers will be applicable to patrol dogs because many of them are used for bomb or drug detection.

Moving forward, Otto says, a main component of the Center’s work will focus on the use of dogs in explosive detection and other substance detection because of the high need for dogs with that training.

“The potential for [using dogs in] explosive detection is clear, and the importance of that is unprecedented,” she says. “Our ports need to have some sort of means of security, and the dogs could be very effective.”

As the Center expands, Otto says they would like to breed their own dogs. Currently, most working dogs in the U.S. are imported from Eastern Europe.

“The concern we have is that a lot of the dogs that are imported are of lesser quality because why wouldn’t they keep their best [dogs] for [themselves]?” she says. “We have the ability, we have the knowledge, we have the resources. We can actually breed dogs here that can be successful and do this really, really well.”

In March, the Working Dog Center will host an international conference called “Selecting Working Dogs for the Next Century: Scientific Advances and Man’s Best Friend.” The event will bring scholars together to share information and foster partnerships. The Center already partners with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Transportation Security Administration, and a program in New York called Puppies Behind Bars.

Originally published Dec. 3, 2009

Originally published on December 3, 2009