University of Arizona student Kit Heyser, who suffers from debilitating anxiety, demonstrates how her dog Angus can lead her out of a store if she becomes overwhelmed. (Courtesy Maria Goodavage)

‘Doctor Dogs’ a prescription for health and happiness

Alert animals can detect disease, aid people with various medical conditions

If you’ve ever had a dog, you know how much joy they bring. There’s nothing like a wagging tail and happy licks when you return from a hard day at work to make everything seem a little better. But, there’s so much more they do for us.

In her new book “Doctor Dogs: How Our Best Friends Are Becoming Our Best Medicine,” San Francisco author Maria Goodavage writes about the many ways that dogs are saving and improving lives through their abilities to detect disease and aid people who suffer from a wide range of medical conditions.

Recently, Goodavage, her voice raspy from too many talks in too short a time (the curse of an author on a book tour), spoke about “Doctor Dogs” before a group of interested people, including me, at a book signing sponsored by SFDOG at the SF/SPCA.

Goodavage, whose previous books on dogs in the military and the Secret Service have been New York Times bestsellers, recounted stories from her new book about dogs who “work” in medicine. Some dogs warn people when they are about to have an epileptic seizure, giving them time to find a safe place to lay down so they don’t hurt themselves during the event. Other dogs warn people in advance of migraines or narcoleptic attacks.

Dogs can detect when a diabetic’s blood sugar level starts to drop, long before the person feels anything is wrong. Indeed, Kim Denton was at the book signing with her diabetic alert dog Troy.

As we were waiting for the talk to start, Troy alerted Denton that her blood glucose level was dropping. Another diabetic alert dog who was there with his owner also alerted to Denton. She took a glucose pill, and it was only when her blood levels improved that both dogs relaxed.

“He saves my life every day,” Denton said, affectionately petting Troy’s golden head.

In her book, Goodavage notes that “Doctor Dogs” rely on their incredibly sensitive noses to do their jobs. Dogs smell in parts per trillion. Goodavage said a dog could detect a packet of sugar dissolved in two Olympic-sized swimming pools of water. They have up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses; humans have about 6 million. And because each nostril samples the air separately, dogs sniff in 3-D, using information from each nostril to triangulate a scent’s location.

“Dogs sniff in color,” Goodavage said.

Researchers are still trying to figure out exactly what it is that tells dogs that something is about to happen. It’s likely that the dogs smell some minute change in chemicals or compounds that are given off in a person’s breath or sweat as their physical condition changes.

Similar chemical signals may also allow dogs to detect cancer, malaria — even Ebola — not to mention superbugs like Clostridium difficile and other potentially deadly antibiotic-resistant bacteria found in hospitals and elsewhere.

In her book, Goodavage writes about researchers who are trying to identify exactly what “Doctor Dogs” are smelling when they work. The scientists hope to eventually create an electronic detector — an e-nose — that can do the same thing as a dog, with even more accuracy, and that doesn’t get tired or bored after a few hours of concentrated work.

Dogs are also good at calming and comforting people who have anxiety, autism and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Goodavage told the story of Molly, a young woman with schizophrenia, who had hallucinations that told her she should kill herself. She couldn’t tell if they were real or not. Molly’s family dog Hank, a Labrador retriever, was super friendly, always running up to people to say hello. Molly soon realized that if she saw or heard someone and Hank didn’t run up to them, the “person” probably wasn’t real. Without even trying to, her dog was helping her find reality while in the grips of her illness.

Dogs bring us joy. They are also on the cutting edge of medicine, helping us live better lives and find promising new ways to detect cancer, Parkinson’s and other diseases in their early stages, when they may be more treatable, and before physical symptoms are present. As Goodavage’s book shows, our best friends really are becoming our best medicine.

Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner.

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