Dogs Who Detect Cancer: “So much more than their nose”
By Katrina Holland
It’s 8.45am at a business park in rural Buckinghamshire, UK: the location of my primary field site. A car pulls up and Kiwi jumps out, rushing into the workplace where she spends 3 days each week. Striding into the office, Kiwi wags her tail and greets her colleagues by scanning each of their bodies with her wet nose. Shortly after arriving, Kiwi is escorted by her supervisor Sam to a nearby grassy paddock where the pair stretch their legs. On their return to the office, Kiwi curls up underneath Sam’s desk and dozes for an hour, before Sam calls her into the training room. Here Kiwi sniffs urine samples for approximately 45 minutes per day.
I’m midway through the fieldwork phase of my PhD research, currently based here at the headquarters of Medical Detection Dogs, a charity that trains dogs to detect human diseases such as prostate cancer. Dogs detecting cancer? Yes, really! Cancer causes changes at the cellular level that are understood to alter the odour of excreted biological substances. Human noses are incapable of smelling such complex chemical signatures, but with around 300 million olfactory receptors (humans have just 5 million) dogs are ideal candidates for this work. During training, dogs like Kiwi are repeatedly rewarded for alerting – commonly indicated by the dog sitting – when sniffing a cancerous urine sample, thus learning to indicate the presence of the cancerous odour.
This mode of bringing animals into the production of scientific knowledge is novel: it is neither a traditional laboratory study scenario (i.e. with animals under constrained conditions of captivity), nor an ethological study conducted in the animal’s natural environment. The roles and subjectivities of the animals employed in this field can also be distinguished from traditional research animals, most obvious in terms of husbandry practices.
Spending several days per week “at work”, participating in odour-detection training and trials associated with the charity’s various research studies, I suggest that these dogs ought to be acknowledged as some combination of “working dog” and “research participant”. Unlike many conventional working dogs or animals used in scientific/medical research, the dogs here are not housed in kennels but are free to wander the office when they aren’t formally working. The dogs are named individually and assigned to research projects based on their individual abilities and personalities that are encouraged to flourish under the conditions of this mode of working with animals. Outside of this work space, the dogs live in the homes of foster families where they are treated akin to regular pet dogs in the UK: their fosterers buy them birthday presents and sometimes take them on holidays.
Elucidating the multiple roles and subjectivities of these disease-detecting dogs is one of my goals as I continue to explore what one of my informants meant when she told me that what these dogs bring to the work surrounding scent-detection is “so much more than their nose”.
Many thanks to the humans and dogs at Medical Detection Dogs who have welcomed me into their world.