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Canine carers: how human health benefits

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From sniffing out cancer cells, supporting people with autism, to alleviating anxiety, our canine carers are doing much to benefit human health, writes Lee Philpott

It’s a no-brainer that the regular exercise we get from walking our four-legged friends is good for our health and general wellbeing, but dogs are proving beneficial in an array of other health-related areas too.

The first strong, clinical investigation of cancer detection by dogs was reported in the British Medical Journal in 2004. Since then there have been further studies with promising results.

Claire Guest, the CEO and co-founder of Medical Detection Dogs—the UK-based charity that trains the dogs in cancer detection— explains that the scientific evidence is based on dogs’ ability to detect the odour of cancer, with studies indicating that cancer compounds are excreted in urine or exhaled on the breath at an early stage in the disease.

“We’ve worked on two studies that show dogs can detect bladder cancer. Training cancer detection dogs usually takes six months but the dogs are more reliable, cheaper and less invasive than most existing tests,” she says.

“The prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood test for prostate cancer, for example, has a 75% false positive rate. This means three in four men are told they may have cancer incorrectly. Those who progress to the painful, invasive biopsy have a 30% chance of having their cancer missed. By having the dogs as an additional secondary test, doctors would have a much better sense of which of the men with raised PSA should go for a biopsy and whether that biopsy should pick up a tumour.  

“In training trials the dogs have achieved 93% reliability in detecting prostate cancer. The dogs are also better at detecting cancer in its early stages than its late stages, which makes dogs perfect early detection tools.”

Currently, the charity is working on the largest trial of its kind to investigate the power of dogs in detecting prostate, kidney, breast and colorectal cancer. These studies are due to be completed around 2019-20.

Assisting people with autism

Assistance Dogs Australia has specially trained Service Dogs that support people with a wide range of conditions from autism and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to dementia.

“Our Autism Service Dogs are matched with children and young adults on the autism spectrum and can provide support in an array of areas from communication skills and emotional understanding to self-esteem, reduced anxiety and improved family relationships,” says Jane McKie, a spokesperson for Assistance Dogs Australia.

“Many young people with autism have difficulty forming friendships, making life incredibly lonely especially for a young child. Through our Assistance Dog training work, we see first-hand the dramatic difference a trained dog can bring to a young person living with autism.

“A trained dog can significantly enhance a child’s independence, communication skills, self-reliance and empathy to new situations and other people. These changes are life changing for the child, and their parents. 

“We’ve seen many children with autism who have difficulty talking or don’t talk at all, become more verbal, because they want to tell people about their dog or they simply want to interact with the dog.

“Aside from becoming a loyal best friend, our trained dogs can help children with autism cope with transitional periods of change when in different environments and, by being a natural ice-breaker, will help the child make new friends. The dog also alleviates emotional strain on carers, parents and siblings to help their physical, emotional and mental wellbeing and build a more cohesive, happier family unit. 

“This can sometimes mean the difference between a family staying together or separating, due to the emotional strain. The unconditional love and companionship an Autism Service Dog can provide is immeasurable,” says Jane. 


Above, 13 year old Jarrah with his Autism Service Dog, Woody

Emma is the mum of 13-year-old Jarrah, who has autism. She tells PS that when Jarrah becomes upset about something, such as misplacing a possession or needing to go to the toilet, he goes into meltdown. His sensory issues mean that the only way for Emma to manage his meltdown is to apply pressure to his body by lying on him.

“A passer-by once told me Jarrah ‘needed a good smack’ as I struggled to calm him in the middle of a shopping mall.

“Now that we have Woody, our Autism Service Dog, it’s our four-legged friend who lovingly lies on Jarrah to alleviate his anxiety and reduce his meltdown, which passers-by don’t seem to mind!

“Woody is a wonderful calming presence. He makes daily routine more interesting for both Jarrah and I. There’s also the sense of pride that Jarrah gets from being out in the community with Woody. He talks to more people and will make eye contact with them, which he would never have done before.

“I’ve also found that whereas he would always walk in front of me down the street, which was worrying as cars often came out of driveways, he’s now started holding Woody’s lead with me and walks next to me.”

Easing post-traumatic stress disorder

Judy Fridono is a dog owner and service dog trainer whose golden retriever Ricochet has helped many children with disabilities and veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to live happier and more fulfilled lives.

Above, Ricochet the golden retriever has helped many children with disabilities and veterans with PTSD.

Judy explains, “Ricochet is trained as a service dog and is also a registered and certified therapy dog.

“Panic attacks can be a huge part of life for veterans with PTSD. Anxiety can play a big role and can come with feelings of depression, making ‘normal’ life difficult to cope with.

“Ricochet has the ability to recognise when an anxiety attack is coming; she can sense it and will respond in a number of different ways to help mitigate the symptoms.

“Eye contact is an easy way for a dog to help calm a veteran’s anxiety. Eye contact releases the oxytocin hormone, which is known as the ‘hug’ hormone. As such, eye contact can reduce anxiety. It’s a simple, often un-noticed, attempt by the dog to assist.

“Face licking is another common way that dogs try to reduce the stress of their handler. Petting and maintaining body contact with the handler is something else dogs do. I see Ricochet put her paw on the foot of veterans to maintain contact and lessen their anxiety. 

“A few years ago Ricochet was assigned to army veteran and retired staff sergeant Randall Dexter. After two tours in Iraq as a combat medic, Randall had been diagnosed with PTSD along with a brain injury. He was on a list of medications and had contemplated suicide.

“Ricochet was able to sense possible psychological triggers for Randall and alert him to these before they resulted in a full-blown anxiety attack. This made him feel much calmer and gave him a greater sense of security and self-confidence when out in the community. These are things most of us take for granted but for veterans suffering from PTSD, a simple everyday task such as going to the shops can be extremely stressful.

“Ricochet also alerts to anxiety or pain in others and to triggers. Once they both were in a superstore and Ricochet suddenly stopped and planted all four paws. She wouldn’t let Randall move. A few minutes later, he took a couple of steps forward and noticed a metal beam swinging from the ceiling above their heads. If Ricochet hadn’t alerted to it, Randall could have knocked his head or it could have triggered a flashback to the time in Iraq when he suffered a brain injury from hitting his head on the metal partition of a Humvee that was in the path of an IED. Ricochet’s keen ‘sixth sense’ helped avoid what could have been a major panic attack,” says Judy.

“I believe every dog has the capacity to alert and respond to PTSD symptoms. The problem is that most of us don’t listen to our dogs. We often think they’re misbehaving, when in reality they are just trying to communicate with us. Ricochet’s communication is very obvious, but most dogs are a lot more subtle.” 

This is an edited extract of an article which appeared in the December 2017 issue of PS.



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