A detector dog works on scent training at Auburn University.
Dogs have a powerful sense of smell, and experts continue to find ways they can be trained to help with everything from detecting disease to finding exotic foods.

Recently, the canine detection experts at Auburn University showed that dogs could detect a specific virus in cows and track down illegally harvested red snapper hidden on fishing boats on the Gulf Coast.

“If something has an odor — and that’s just about anything —we can usually direct dogs to detect it,” says Dr. Paul Waggoner of Auburn University’s Canine Detection Research Institute.

He explains that almost everything has some type of volatile organic compound — chemicals that emit most scents or odors. The ability to train dogs to find those odors is usually more limited by a human’s understanding of the compound and how it behaves than a dog’s ability to smell it. Trainers have to understand the material and how to control it in order to communicate to the dogs what it is they should do. 

Below, we’ve rounded up a sampling of the incredible things dogs are sniffing out these days, including some of Waggoner’s new research and experiments at Auburn.

Helping in the Medical Field

You’re probably heard those incredible stories of owners whose lives may have been saved by their dog, who kept sniffing them and signaling something was wrong, convincing them to seek medical help.

That capability has been put to good use in the last few years in the medical field. Dogs are being trained to detect several types of cancer by identifying breath samples from lung and breast cancer patients.

A scent-detection dog trains at the student center at Auburn University.
At the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, dogs are helping to develop a way to identify ovarian cancer in its early stages, when it is often less deadly. The dogs learn the scent of chemicals ovarian cancer emits in tissue and blood. One of the Penn Vet dogs, a Labrador Retriever, can identify it with 90 percent accuracy. Researchers hope to take what they learn from the dogs and apply it to technology that can be used in hospitals across the country, reports NBC News

Assistance dogs have also been trained to alert diabetic owners to dangerously low blood sugar levels and signal the onset of an episode in people with seizure disorders, as well as smell gluten in products for people with celiac disease so they don’t ingest it and become sick.

Now, they might also even be able to help stem the spread of contagious disease. Auburn’s Waggoner worked on a study where dogs were trained to detect bovine viral diarrhea virus, which can affect a cow’s intestinal system. And while this can help cattle farmers, it also has much larger implications.

“Our whole purpose in doing that was the bigger idea that you could train dogs for detecting viruses and therefore they might be used for different agricultural purposes and also for the detection of people [who might be infected with a contagious virus],” he said. “When we have an outbreak of some type of viral illness in the world and it’s spreading, there’s not a lot of good ways to monitor that and detect it as people cross borders and go from one country to another. You could use dogs potentially in the detection of individuals who may have the virus.”

Finding Food 

We all know dogs are good at smelling food, but in this case, we’re not talking about a tasty treat. Instead, canines are helping humans to track down exotic and valuable truffles and fish that have been illegally harvested.

Black truffles grow underground and have only recently been cultivated in the U.S. Some are worth about $1,000 a pound, reports CNN, but they’re not easy to find — unless you’re a dog. The Lagotto Romagnolo, an Italian breed first recognized by the American Kennel Club last year, is probably best known for this capability.

A Spaniel trains to detect hidden fish fillets on a boat in Alabama.
Waggoner hasn’t worked directly on training truffle dogs but explains that they sit to indicate they’ve found a truffle — rather than digging them up to consume them, like the pigs who’ve been used for this purpose.

“The truffles are just something off-limits,” he explains. The dogs will quickly learn that by locating the truffle, they get the thing they “want most in the world,” which is usually a favorite toy, playtime with a person or a food reward.

Waggoner’s team worked with the Alabama Department of Natural Resources this year to train two Spaniels to find hidden fish fillets. “There’s a very short season for red snapper for conservation purposes and it’s a very sought-after fish,” Waggoner explains. The department needed a way to ensure the charter boats and individuals who go out fishing in the area aren’t harvesting the fish out of season and they needed to figure out how to intervene when that was happening.

In this case, the dogs had to be trained not simply to find fish fillets but to indicate when they found them in parts of the boat where fish weren’t normally kept, like down in the hull or at the bottom of an ice chest.

“They’ve been very effective already,” Waggoner says. “They’ve had some finds and certainly the press they’ve gotten down there has helped with curtailing people from trying to harvest these illegal fish out of season.”

Electronics and Law Enforcement

The same logic of detecting something in an unlikely place can be applied in other scenarios, too — like dogs who are able to sniff out electronics.

There are a handful of electronics-detection dogs in the country, and one was used last year to sniff out a hidden thumb drive that humans couldn’t find in a search of then-Subway pitchman Jared Fogle’s Indiana home. Fogle later pleaded guilty to child pornography charges, reports NBC News, and is no longer associated with the fast-food chain.

How could a dog smell something like this? Even electronics, says Waggoner, have an odor. Although he didn’t work with the dogs in this case, he explains that electronics are sometimes crushed up or presented whole to give the dogs a training stimulus. Like the case of the red snapper, they then search for them and indicate when they’ve found something in an unusual spot, like a drawer or closet.

Similarly, dogs are being used in some prisons to search for cell phones convicts may be using to continue illegal activities, Waggoner says.

What Will They Smell Next?

Of course, there are many more ways that dogs are using their scent detection skills to help their best friends, including continuing their work in customs, in explosives and narcotic detection and even in wildlife conservation and archaeology.

“The difficulty is usually not with the dog. The difficulty is in our ability to understand the material the dog’s detecting,” Waggoner says. “If you don’t understand it, then its presence and absence is something we can’t control for training purposes.”

The possibilities seem endless, and we can’t wait to see how these heroes put their noses to work next.

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