I had read some months ago that dogs were being trained to detect cancer ……. with some success.

But nothing could have been more remarkable than what happened with our very own dog, Max …… a German Shepherd who is just over five years old. Max is an intelligent dog and seems to have a strong sense of smell as evident in the way he goes about finding items as he sniffs around and locates them.

German Shepherds are often viewed as “one owner” dogs, in that they develop their greatest affinity to one person in the house. In the case of Max that affinity was towards me. He would often come and lay right next to where I was seated and certainly was most inclined to listen to my commands more than those of anyone else.


About four months ago, that pattern changed for no apparent reason …… Max commenced to lay next to my wife, Mini. This happened so often and was so untypical of his normal behavior that she commented on it repeatedly. The other thing he started to do was to stick his muzzle under her left breast ……. again, this was something that she would comment on and ask me what was wrong with Max. Towards the middle of May – about a month after the change in his behavior – during a self-examination, Mini noticed a very small lump towards the bottom of her left breast. A biopsy that was done about a week after she detected it, confirmed that it was malignant. She has since then had surgery to have the cancerous lump removed and is currently undergoing radiation therapy. The cancer was detected at a very early stage and the prognosis is excellent.

Since then we have remarked to others about this whole episode with Max …. to say categorically that he detected something different would be difficult to prove but there is no doubt that there was a change in his behavior. Now that the cancerous tissue has been removed, Max is back to laying next to me most of the time as was his normal pattern.

The training of dogs to detect cancer is apparently based on a different odor that is emitted when there is cancerous tissue. Max was certainly not trained to detect cancer but our assumption is that he likely smelled something different. The way he would stick his muzzle underneath the breast with the cancerous tissue was just not normal behavior for him. Was the different odor more marked underneath the affected breast?

What is interesting is that there is a case of precisely the same thing happening with another woman, in England, and her 18-month-old Cavalier King Charles spaniel. The BBC reported:

Sharon Wilkinson with Penny

Sharon Rawlinson discovered she had a cancerous tumour in her breast after her dog started sniffing and pawing at it. She ignored her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel for months, but went for tests after Penny stepped on her chest, causing pain.

Mrs Rawlinson, from Newark, then examined herself and found a lump.

“I can’t explain how she knew. I just can’t get my head around it,” she said.

Penny began her unusual behaviour in November, and stepped on her owner’s chest in January.

Mrs Rawlinson went to her GP and then Nottingham City Hospital for tests, and Penny continued to paw her while she waited for the results. Mrs Rawlinson began chemotherapy in March and went into hospital for an operation to remove the tumour this week.

“As soon as I started chemotherapy she’s not gone near the breast since,” Mrs Rawlinson said.

Martin Ledwick, head information nurse at Cancer Research UK, said: “A few anecdotal cases have suggested that dogs may sometimes be aware that their owner has cancer.

“No reliable research has given a scientific explanation of how this could work.”

In the same article reported by the BBC, it states:

The first serious suggestion that dogs could “sniff out” cancer appeared in a letter to “The Lancet” in April 1989. It contained anecdotal evidence of a dog that kept sniffing a lesion on its owner that was later confirmed as an early malignant melanoma. A subsequent study by Dr John Church, published in 2004, claimed to prove in principle that dogs could detect bladder cancer in urine. Further separate studies carried out suggest dogs can also detect lung, bladder and bowel cancer.

More preliminary scientific evidence regarding a dog’s ability to detect cancer comes from the highly reputed Cleveland Clinic. Dr. Michael Roizen and Dr. Mehmet Oz stated:

Researchers in Germany followed a program developed at the Cleveland Clinic that trained dogs to detect the smell of a waste product of lung cancer. The German dogs can smell your breath and identify lung cancer correctly 93 percent of the time. A Japanese pooch sniffed the breath and stool samples of more than 300 people and correctly identified which people had bowel cancer 98 percent of the time. Other studies demonstrate dogs can detect early-stage breast cancer, melanomas and bladder cancer with an accuracy rate of 88 percent to 97 percent.

How is this possible? Malignant tumors exude tiny amounts of volatile organic compounds that aren’t in healthy tissue. Dogs can sniff out each one in concentrations as dilute as parts per trillion.

Whether Max’s behavior was mere coincidence or not is a fair question. I don’t know the answer. What there is no doubt about is there was a definite change in his behavior pattern which ceased after surgery to remove the malignant tumor.

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One Response to “Coincidence or can dogs detect cancer?”

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