Service dogs' specialized training helps them detect life-threatening diseases in humans

Thursday, February 23, 2017
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Specially trained service dogs use their sense of smell to help detect disease in hospital patients.

HONOLULU (KABC) -- Our hearts are touched by dogs even when they aren't walking hospital halls to brighten spirits, but some particular service canines are playing an even more important role.

"My hope was that we could teach dogs to detect early stages of UTI's and prevent more serious infections and hospitalization," said Maureen Maurer, founder of Assistance Dogs of Hawaii.

Maurer says while there are dogs already trained to detect cancer, she sees a need to help those with spinal cord injuries, strokes, and paralysis, who suffer from UTI's or urinary tract infections.

"By the time the physician or patient detects, it has gone well beyond a simple bladder infection. Kidney infection, a blood infection -- that can progress pretty quickly," said Dr. Amendeep Samal, spinal-cord injury program director at Rehabilitation Hospital of the Pacific.

Several small studies were done with Maurer's dogs. They were able to identify the presence of bacteria, even at less than 1 percent.

"There was an incident where the dog was more accurate than the lab tests," said Samal.

"Angel alerts to me by going to the patients left-hand side and sitting down," said recreational therapist Katherine Julian, referring to one of the service dogs. "She'll look at me in a certain way."

One day Angel did that spontaneously in a hospital hallway.

"We immediately notified a physician to run a lab," said Julian. "Low and behold it was positive. She alerted four days sooner than a lab was able to create."

Not all the dogs are trained to detect urinary tract infections, yet all of them are trained in Hawaii.

They go all over the world -- Japan, Washington state, and their handlers are looking to bring them to Southern California.

"Our goal is to place a hospital facility dog in every Children's Hospital on the West Coast," said Maurer.

The dogs start training at 7 weeks of age and are "service-dog ready" a year and a half later.

"That costs about $25,000. That includes lifetime support," said Maurer.

Getting funding is crucial.

"My heart was just melted when I saw these dogs and what they can do," said Karen Bliss, who has sponsored Mo's dogs for fifteen years

Whenever possible she works at training camp to walk, bathe and help out.

"Whatever Mo needs, we want to be there for them," said Bliss.