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The Dogs That Are Transforming from Canine Companions to Medical Heroes

October 20, 2015 | Dr. Mary Williams, RN, DC | Comments

As I write this, I'm looking at my lazy pooch laying on his back snoring, and I have to chuckle at the irony. While he is definitely not material for medical dog training, I am amazed at the incredible work that is being done by many of our furry best friends. In my profession, I've often come into contact with a variety of medical dogs, usually assistive animals that help patients with mobility or visual issues. Medical dogs are being trained to accomplish some truly amazing things to help their owners and providing them much more with just companionship. In many cases, they could save their owners' lives.

Research Dogs

Dogs have an incredible sense of smell, and it is thought that they are capable of detecting odors that human noses cannot. Researchers have been attempting to find new methods for early detection of diseases, particularly cancer. Remarkably, after training dogs to identify certain cancer cells outside of patients, these medical dogs were able to identify cancer in patients with a surprisingly high accuracy rate. Dogs trained to detect cancer could diagnose patients with lung cancer at a 97% accuracy rate and breast cancer with 88% accuracy. How? Simply by sniffing the breath of the cancer patients. Researchers are now working on training dogs to detect ovarian cancer and have successfully trained them to identify skin and prostate cancer.

Service Dogs

Other medical dogs include those that provide support to patients dealing with certain chronic illnesses. Many of us are familiar with medical dogs who assist blind people and those who help people who are wheelchair-bound or have other mobility issues. But there are a number of other service dogs that provide amazing support to their owners suffering with certain chronic illnesses. Let's look at some of the other types.

  • Diabetes Dogs: Some service dogs are trained to detect body chemistry changes in their owners that would indicate that their levels of glucose are too low or too high. For diabetics, levels that remain too low or too high can cause seizures, coma, and death, so to have a canine "early alert" system could (and often does) save their lives.
  • Heart Attack/Seizure Response Dogs: Other service dogs are trained to detect changes in blood pressure, and some are able to alert patients that a heart attack is about to occur. Patients with epilepsy are often given service dogs who can lie down next to a patient to help keep them from hurting themselves during a seizure, remove dangerous or harmful objects in the vicinity of the patient, and attempt to revive the patient at the end of the seizure. Incredibly, seizure patients with these service animals report that often, their dogs will alert them prior to the seizure. Right now, how they know this is not known, but trainers have taught dogs signs to alert the patient to an oncoming seizure.
  • Psychiatric Care Dogs: Often, people suffering from psychiatric conditions like PTSD, bipolar disorder, autism, and schizophrenia might require around-the-clock support. With a service dog, these people have constant companions who can identify patterns or changes in their owner's behavior that indicate symptoms like paranoia, hallucinations, harmful repetitive actions, and panic attacks and then can help soothe them and even remind them to take their medicine.

It has long been accepted that owning a pet is good for your health, but these animals truly make a lasting impact during the daily lives of their owners. There are tons of incredible stories where these animals save lives, and all they ever want is a treat and a belly rub. Their unconditional love and support is very motivating to me as a health care professional to show the same concern and care for my own patients. By providing their humans with comfort and a good sloppy kiss when they need it, medical dogs can truly be considered man's best friend.

Photo of licensed therapy dog

This post is dedicated to the memory of Didjeridoo a licensed therapy dog I had for many years. A dog with a calm and friendly personality, Didjeridoo was taken to many hospitals and care centers to assist with the therapy of patients.


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