The Nose Knows

The canine sense of smell is extraordinary. Consider that a dog’s nose contains more than 220 million olfactory (smell) receptors compared to our measly five million! This keen canine sense of smell has been used to benefit us in all kinds of ways. Dogs have been hunting alongside humans for centuries. Scent trained dogs direct their handlers to specific smells (drugs, explosive devices, various types of cancer), alert diabetics when their blood sugar levels are abnormal, and warn epileptics when seizures are about to unfold.

A new scent training program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine’s Working Dog Center is focused on teaching dogs to detect ovarian cancer in women. Funded by a grant from Kaleidoscope of Hope Foundation, the goal of the program is to train dogs to detect this disease at an early stage, before symptoms are apparent and before conventional screening tests are as effective. When diagnosed early, the survival time for women with ovarian cancer is markedly increased.

The research program

A Labrador named Ohlin Frank is only on his fourth training session, but he has been able to detect ovarian cancer tissue 100 percent of the time. He is one of three dogs- two Labradors and a Springer Spaniel who have been identified within the research program as having the greatest potential for this scent work. After eight weeks of training in obedience and agility, the dogs were introduced to the ovarian cancer smell. They were trained to sit at the moment of detection.

Thus far, ovarian tissues have been collected from 31 cancer patients and 30 healthy individuals to serve as a control group. The training team will imprint the dogs on tissue as well as blood (plasma) samples from the various patients. Dr. Cynthia Otto, the director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center explains, “If we can document that the dogs are good at picking up the odor in plasma after being exposed to the tissue, then we can try moving forward to see if the dogs could be imprinted solely on the plasma samples. As cancer cells’ entire metabolic machinery is shifted when they become malignant, their unique odor is evidently a signature the dogs are able to identify, with different cancer types having different signatures.”

The goal

While it is lovely to fantasize about “a Lab in every lab” (think how this would liven up the work atmosphere), there simply aren’t enough dogs to go around! Dr. Otto and her coworkers hope to take what they learn from the dogs and use this information to develop a laboratory test for early ovarian cancer screening. Collaborating with researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center and the University of Pennsylvania Department of Physics the researchers hope to characterize the components of the chemicals the dogs are scenting and then refine the analysis to enable machines in the laboratory to successfully detect them. The ultimate goal would be an accurate blood screening test for early detection of ovarian cancer, particularly in women with a family history of this disease.

Kudos to Dr. Otto and her team for pursuing this amazing research!

Have you done scent detection work with your dog? If so, please share your experience.

Best wishes,

Nancy Kay, DVM

Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
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Please visit to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health.   There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at,, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.





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9 Comments on “The Nose Knows

  1. I have a Great Pyrenees mix. Recently my husband and daughter decided to walk down to the village for ice cream. I was busy and stayed home with Samson, as he wouldn’t have been welcome in the store. Well, Sammy was NOT happy at being left home, and whined and cried, so I said “OK, let’s go.” We went outside, and I said to him, “Find Daddy & Aurora!” He put his nose to the ground and was off! I’ve never heard of Pyrs as being particular scent hounds, Sammy supposedly has a 1/4 Labrador in him. He went right down the street in the correct direction, pulled me a different way than our usual shortcut, and as it happens, they did go that way, which was very unusual. Ten minutes later of me reminding him to “Find Daddy!” we ended up outside the ice cream shop and Sammy wagged his tail in triumph. I was very impressed, I had no idea that he had such a good nose, or could follow a trail as commanded. Maybe we should do some formal scent training. He’s only a year & a half and we’re still learning what he can do, he’s recently started to get protective like a Pyr is supposed to be, right on schedule.

  2. I continue to be amazed by dogs’ scenting capabilities and how willing they are to use these skills for our benefit. The stories related by previous posters about breast cancer were amazing — my now deceased and greatly beloved Maggie was with me when I discovered my lump and subsequent breast cancer. We were so close but I cannot recall any actions of hers that might be construed as trying to alert me. I do have to wonder how and why some dogs are moved to alert and some are not.

  3. This is one more way these wonderful beings give to us. I hope the comment of ‘not enough dogs’ means not enough trained dogs yet to meet the needs. Cleary when we bond with and work with them, there isn’t much we cannot do together.

  4. I recently started taking scent work classes with my two Cardigan Corgis. It’s so much fun to watch them work, finding hidden scents that no mere human could ever detect! If anyone wants more information, check out

  5. About 9 years ago my Samoyed would continually pester me whenever I sat down. He would crawl in my lap and would persistently lick my arms and hands and face. This was not a typical behavior for him. After about 2 weeks or so of this daily irritating behavior, I had a mammogram that detected breast cancer. After my lumpectomy and treatment he would just lie quietly at my feet when I sat down. AMAZING

  6. Yes. The Malinois began sniffing Katie’s nose about a week before her lupus “butterfly” sore appeared! He, the Malinois, often sniffs little bumps that she may have. He’s quite the sniffer which is why I began tracking with him. Thanks Dr. Kay for this article of hope.

  7. Murphy was 9 and I was 32. She was a rare find, raised by us after being found, days old, she fit in one hand. Such a well behaved and intelligent girl. At first, it was funny, the fact that she became my lap dog at 97 pounds, no one else’s lap, just mine. Then, in all honesty it became a pain in the ass when all she did was put her cold black nose on my boob. She waited behind me while cooking, brushing my teeth, working… The minute I sat down, there she was again. It was like this for another 3 weeks until I noticed the lump, a very small, terrifying lump. Doc said I had just had a mammogram, so let’s just wait and see. I spoke to the plastic surgeon who had just removed cancer from my Mom’s face. He did a biopsy the following day. One week later, I had a bilateral radical mastectomy. Murphy died when she was 17, an incredible age for such a big girl. I wish she was still here, perhaps she would have found what is, now, terminal. Our dogs know when we have our periods, when we have sat in the chair at our friend’s house where their dog sit, they know when we are sad and happy and when something weighs on us heavily. Pay attention, they know, no matter the breed. They know us, just pay attention to what they are paying attention to.

  8. I took the statement “there simple aren’t enough dogs” to mean there aren’t enough trained dogs to detect ovarian cancer. Really interesting article.

  9. “there simply aren’t enough dogs”????? So does that mean they’re going to start breeding their own in the “hopes” of coming up with the “perfect samples”? Then what happens to the bred dogs that don’t make muster? What an irresponsible statement! There have been over 100 Brittanys seized from a breeder in our state alone; surely many would qualify, and many more in shelters in Pennsylvania alone. I sincerely hope that’s a consideration.