A dogs nose: a medical alert and police and military threat detection tool

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Man's Best Friend

Dogs are man’s best friend for several reasons: they offer warmth and companionship, unconditional loyalty, reliable protection…and they have fantastic noses.

Capable of smelling scents with a 10,000 to 100,000 fold superiority over human abilities, dogs can detect odors present in the air in parts per trillion. In essence, a dog could detect a rotten fruit among two million bushels.

Their noses allow them to claim territory, interact socially, detect danger, and find food. And, their noses allow us to enjoy a longer, healthier, safer, easier existence.

The Dog Nose

We have approximately 6 million olfactory receptors within our noses; dogs have 300 million, and the section of their brain responsible for scent analysis is also 40 times larger.

When we breathe in, we simultaneously inhale air for respiration and smelling through the same pathway. Smelling takes place at the roof of our nasal cavity, where all air enters and exits on its way to and from the lungs.

Bioengineers have discovered a different method used by the dog: A tissue fold inside the nostril divides air into two pathways, one devoted to olfaction and the other to respiration. The olfaction pathway traps 12% of air in a recess at the back of the nose where its odor is analyzed and results are forwarded on to the brain. The rest of the air goes through the respiratory path on to the lungs.

By isolating the two processes, the dog is able to achieve a far superior smelling ability.

Not to mention, dog’s also have a better exhalation process than ours. Air does not go out the same way that it comes in, but is instead pushed out through slits in the sides of the nose. This method actually helps propel in new air instead of pushing it out, allowing a continual sniff of scent for as long as 40 seconds.

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A friend in need

Fortunately, although our sense of smell is by far inferior to that of a dog's, we are still able to benefit from their innate skill in several unique and fascinating ways.

Following is an outline of several areas in which canines use their noses to help humans.

Some people think dogs can smell if you are pregnant; did your dog know?

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Cancer: A labrador retriever showed 97% accuracy in identifying patients with colon cancer when presented with 185 stool samples from both cancer patients and noncancerous individuals.

The dog was similarly successful when given the breath and stool samples of breast, prostate, and stomach cancer sufferers amid cancer-free samples. It didn’t matter if individuals had other conditions, or if their cancers were in early or late stages.

Dogs have been documented to reliably detect ovarian and bladder cancers as well.

Seizures: Canines have the capacity to smell chemical changes and alert humans hours beforehand of an impending seizure. Individuals can then take the appropriate measures to either prevent an episode or make sure help is at hand.

Interestingly, dogs are not trained for seizure detection; it is a skill they are born with, and they will naturally whine, bark, or paw to alert of an upcoming attack. Some owners benefit from having their pets learn additional skills such as staying with them when they seize or pressing buttons that connect to emergency services.

Diabetes, Hypoglycemia, Addisons disease: Similarly to those with seizures, individuals with these three potentially life threatening diseases benefit greatly from the assistance of medical alert dogs.

These animals are believed to be able to smell dips in blood sugar and/or pressure and perform attention-seeking behavior to alert their owners. They can also fetch medical supplies and push alarm buttons when trained to do so.

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Mold: After a “mold dog” has been offered samples of harmful microbes from which it can hone its targeting skills, it together with its handler can be brought into suspect buildings in search of unwanted growth.

Canines offer superior detection when structures would otherwise have to be torn apart to confirm damage. They are also highly cost-effective and can scan buildings with hundreds of rooms in hours, minimizing time and money spent on the search. Dogs have successfully hit on mold hidden in floors, in the adhesive coatings of cupboards, and even on the surface paint layer of walls.

Termites: Silas is a black Labrador and terrier mix trained in the specialized practice of termite sniffing. Similarly to mold dogs, the true benefit of termite dogs like Silas lies in their ability to pinpoint nonobvious problem areas and, even more specifically, identify where the insects initially gained entry.

Not only can Silas zone in on adult termites but he also identifies their eggs. And, as if that isn’t enough, he will let owners of termite-infested homes know if they are also harboring bed bugs, which produce their own unique identifying aroma and for which dogs show an over 95% accuracy for detection.

Firearms: In order to be certified as a firearms detecting K-9 team by the Eastern States Working Dog Association, Inc., dogs must be able to sniff out clean or recently fired firearms, loaded or empty magazines, brass and shotgun shells, black and smokeless gunpowder, and empty shell casings hidden in buildings, vehicles, the open, and in packages.

Explosives: The Transportation Safety Administration has begun a program using explosive-detecting dogs as a pre-screening tool in hopes of reducing the time travelers spend in security lines.

In a few select airports people are being cleared for expedited flight without removing their shoes, emptying out their bags, stepping through scanning devices or submitting to invasive pat-downs.

It is believed dogs are superior at detecting explosives to machinery, as it takes a human to interpret what is displayed on a screen but a dog can recognize dangerous combustibles for what they are with a single sniff.

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IEDs: Our military credits an anti-IED program using dogs as the most successful strategy for potential explosive detection. Machines, no matter how sophisticated, can malfunction.

Further, each gadget generally targets a few specific IED components and requires the use of additional equipment for comprehensive protection. Machines are also bulky, difficult to transport, and costly.

In contrast, healthy dogs display 100% success at detecting several explosive components simultaneously, can move on their own as soon as they are needed, and cost less than one percent of a piece of IED detecting equipment.

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Pirated DVDs: Dixie, a springer spaniel, is just one dog used by UK Trading Standards authorities to zero in on bootleg DVDs. Not only capable of identifying whole, intact DVDs, Dixie can also identify DVD fragments that would otherwise be unnoticeable in a man-led search.

She cannot, of course, smell the difference between an illegally copied DVD and a legitimately purchased one; however, she can help identify if DVDs are present and aid in any searches. She can also sniff out tobacco.

Human Searches: Dogs can canvas extensive areas, sampling the air currents as they go, in search of human scent or, in more targeted searches, for a unique individual’s scent. Once they pick up on the targeted smell they can then trail it back to its source.

Some dogs receive additional training to seek recently deceased human bodies, fluids, and other decomposing materials; others specialize in severely decayed and possibly skeletal remains; and some even target ancient archaeological graves. Remains can be located both on ground and under water.

Drugs: Remarkably, a plastic container filled with marijuana and immersed in gasoline within a gas tank has proven identifiable by drug sniffing canines.

The Oregon State Police (OSP) drug detection program used ten dogs to assist officers in the seizure of 200 lbs marijuana, 110 lbs marijuana plants, 1.5 lbs hashish, 55 lbs cocaine, 82 lbs heroin, 49 lbs methamphetamine, and 3 lbs of psychedelic mushroom in 2012.

OSP drug dogs that participated in these operations include yellow labs Hank, Cookie, and Lola; black labs Thunder, Brogan, Quincey, Charger, and Maree; and a brown lab named Hemi.

Cell Phones: Inmates using cell phones to perpetuate crime on the streets have a new hurdle to overcome: canine cell phone sniffing patrols. Sold for around four hundred dollars each, cell phones allow convicts to remain a danger to the outside public and help them plan hits, organize escapes, access drugs, or arrange for the delivery of illegal and dangerous items to them in prison.

Hidden in food, books, shoes, bedding, or elsewhere, it can be difficult to locate them without multiple thorough, time-consuming searches. Dogs, on the other hand, easily follow their noses and home in on the electronic devices.

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Bees: Dogs can detect bees infected with Foulbrood disease, responsible for demolishing countless bee colonies throughout the United States in the early 90’s.

Buck, a black Labrador retriever, is one dog trained to search bee colonies for lethal Foulbrood bacterial spores; within minutes he can analyze 20 hives, whereas a human would take three times as long to perform the same search.

Invasive Species: Digger, a rescue dog trained in aquatic invasive species detection by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, works alongside two other canines to sniff out the troublesome Zebra mussel.

In California, boat inspectors use canines to detect a different, though similar nonnative threat: the Quagga mussel.

But trouble does not only travel by sea; Hawaii implemented a successful 20-year-long air cargo screening program that targeted brown tree snake stow-aways using dog detection forces.

Ovulating Cows: With proper training dogs can detect when cows are in estrus, their period of fertility in which they can be successfully bred, with an approximate 80% accuracy. This is crucial for artificially inseminating, or impregnating, them.

If estrus is not detected conception rates will be low. Farmers can either observe cows three times a day for half an hour each time to look for signs of heat or utilize heat detection aids, such as dogs, to make the job easier and ultimate outcome more successful.

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Recognizing Dogs

Dogs and their noses save countless human lives; they warn of health hazards due to disease, mold, or hidden explosives and can find people who are injured or lost. They offer us protection from crime by identifying illegal drugs and firearms and monitoring the behavior of inmates in our prisons.

Invasive species are kept in check, on land or sea, in water or in air.

And, dogs help us sustain ourselves by protecting the wellbeing of bees--our honey and pollinator source, and maximizing the production of cows--our source of dairy and beef.

Dogs truly are man's best buddy!


Written in loving memory of three cockapoos: Chubaka, Mandy, and Emmy, the best cheddar cheese and cherry tomato detectors ever born.

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14 comments

lifelovemystery profile image

lifelovemystery 3 years ago from Houston, TX

This is Fascinating! I had no idea that dogs were able to detect so many different things with their noses. I also didn't know that they don't inhale and exhale from their nostrils. Great information. Voted up!


epbooks profile image

epbooks 3 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

I love dogs and they never cease to amaze me. Well written and informative hub. Thanks for sharing!


Schatzie Speaks profile image

Schatzie Speaks 3 years ago from US Author

Hi lifelovemystery,

They only discovered the whole inhale/exhale thing in detail recently, but it definitely helps explain why we could never come close to smelling what a dog can! They are trying to model smell detecting machinery after dog noses but without the large canine brain that comes with them I can't see any invention coming close to the real deal anytime soon!

Thanks for stopping by and commenting! :)


Schatzie Speaks profile image

Schatzie Speaks 3 years ago from US Author

Hi epbooks,

I too love dogs! They are so talented and so smart we can train them to do almost anything if we have a biscuit as a bribe! :D Needless to say, my dog is a little on the plump side.

Thanks for reading!


Better Yourself profile image

Better Yourself 3 years ago from North Carolina

Very interesting! I have always known about the powerful sense of smell dogs have, but am amazed at some of the info above about detecting cancer and illnesses. Really enjoyed reading, thanks for sharing!


Mel Carriere profile image

Mel Carriere 3 years ago from San Diego California

Extremely well written hub. Dogs are amazing animals. As a letter carrier I wonder if we give off a distinctive "mail" odor because dogs that love the mailman tend to love all of them, and vise versa.


Schatzie Speaks profile image

Schatzie Speaks 3 years ago from US Author

Hi Better Yourself!

I was in the same boat; I had heard of dogs being used as therapy/guide animals and in the military and police forces but the disease detecting was new info! As was the bee and mold sniffing! I already own a dog but am seriously considering making it two or three...can't have too much of a good thing! ;)

Thank you for your comment.


Schatzie Speaks profile image

Schatzie Speaks 3 years ago from US Author

Hi Mel Carriere,

Thank you so much! Haha, I'm sure there must be an identifying "mail" aroma; nothing seems to get past a dog's keen nose! I sincerely hope you encounter far more of the loving mailman sort than the opposite! I know my dog, who has an extreme fondness for the FedEx man and his fun-to-chew cardboard box deliveries, would adore you. :)


cidersage profile image

cidersage 3 years ago from Longmont, CO

Great pics and interesting content. I look forward to more from you along these lines.


Solaras profile image

Solaras 3 years ago

Great post - Thumbs up and shared on FB!


Schatzie Speaks profile image

Schatzie Speaks 3 years ago from US Author

Hi Cidersage,

Thanks for reading and leaving me feedback! I am hoping to write more similarly themed hubs...progress is somewhat slow but I've got a few in the works! Hopefully it won't be too much longer before I can push that 'publish' button. ;)


Schatzie Speaks profile image

Schatzie Speaks 3 years ago from US Author

Hi Solaras,

Thanks so much for the support and for sharing! I really appreciate it!


Larry Rankin profile image

Larry Rankin 2 years ago from Oklahoma

In answer to your question, both our cat and dog seemed to know something was up before we knew we were pregnant.

The applications of dog's sniffing ability is seemingly endless, and it is practical to pursue such channels. They are trying to develop computerized sniffers, but isn't it more financially feasible to just train dogs? Wonderful article.


Peggy James 2 years ago

Love this hub! This is incredible information, some of which I'm learning for the first time. Kudos!

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