MAKAWAO - It's no news that dogs have a keen sense of smell, but researchers on Maui are engaged in a cutting-edge medical scent detection study that involves training dogs to detect life-threatening infections.
Assistance Dogs of Hawaii in Makawao has partnered with a number of other organizations in Hawaii and on the Mainland to train five service dogs to sniff out bacteria common in urinary tract infections, a condition that is prevalent among those with disabilities, particularly spinal cord injuries.
"The problem is that for people with disabilities, the damage to the spinal cord can cause impairment in the bladder function, and many people need to use catheters, which introduce bacteria," Maureen "Mo" Maurer, executive director of Assistance Dogs of Hawaii and lead trainer in the study, said in an interview Wednesday.
Assistance Dogs of Hawaii Executive Director Maureen “Mo” Maurer prepares to offer treats to the five hardworking service dogs who are being trained to detect early signs of urinary tract infections, a leading cause of health complications among people with spinal cord disabilities.
The Maui News / EILEEN CHAO photo
Mo Maurer, Assistance Dogs of Hawaii executive director, watches as scent detection dog Sam sniffs boxes while searching for the box containing E. coli bacteria.
RON DAHLQUIST photo
Dogs Sadie (from left), Abe, Sam, Scout and Astro are being trained to detect early signs of urinary tract infections.
RON DAHLQUIST photo
The biggest problem, Maurer said, was that many people who have disabilities are not able to recognize the symptoms and early warning signs of infections. An untreated UTI may travel into the bladder, the kidney and then the bloodstream. People with UTIs are 30 times more likely to develop bladder cancer, she said.
"It's not until (people with disabilities) are so severely sick from this infection that they realize they have it, and by then it's too late and oftentimes they have to be hospitalized," Maurer said.
But the scent detection studies that are currently underway at Maurer's facility may offer people a way to detect infections early, possibly preventing more serious infections that may lead to cancer.
Maurer and a team of researchers started planning for the study in 2011, after Maurer had worked with professors at her graduate school who were training dogs to detect early signs of cancer. The team selected five dogs to train in scent detection - a golden retriever, two Labradors and two golden-Lab hybrids - and started conducting tests in May.
The testing process involves five different samples - four of which are regular urine samples and one containing traces of E. coli, the bacteria that accounts for 80 to 90 percent of UTIs, said Maurer. The five samples are then covered by large plastic boxes and spaced out evenly in a room. One of the dogs is then brought in by a trainer, sniffs each box and then sits down in front of the one he suspects has the tainted sample. If he identifies the correct box, he gets a treat.
In less than three months, more than 2,000 rounds of testing have been conducted, and all five dogs readily identify the tainted samples, even when the research team diluted the sample to concentration levels equivalent to a single drop in an Olympic-sized pool.
"The dogs' sense of smell is 100,000 times stronger than ours," Maurer said. "Even when we diluted the samples, the dogs detected it as if it was full strength."
The dogs also are being taught to detect staph infections and other bacteria that may lead to health complications. Each test run is videotaped and recorded, and the research will be published in a medical journal by the end of the year, Maurer said.
"This has been the most successful and efficient study that I've been involved with in the past 13 years," the director of research at the Pine Street Foundation, Dr. Michael McCulloch, who has been hired as a consultant for the study, said in a statement. "This study will set a new standard for future canine scent detection research."
The next phase of the study involves teaching currently working service dogs to provide early detection of UTIs in their disabled partners on Maui, which Maurer said will commence this fall.
Assistance Dogs of Hawaii, formerly known as Hawaii Canines for Independence, is the only accredited service dog training center on Maui and one of two in the state. The nonprofit center began training service dogs for people with spinal cord disabilities in 2000 but has since expanded to train courthouse and hospital facility dogs, guide dogs, hearing dogs, seizure response dogs and therapy dogs. All services are provided free of charge.
The training process begins with puppies - mostly golden retrievers or Labradors - at 7 weeks old, when they learn basic behaviors and socialization as well as 30 different commands. As they get older, the dogs learn more specialized skills, like opening doors, turning off lights, fetching objects, pulling wheelchairs and water rescue.
"Dogs have so much untapped potential to help people in need. . . . With their incredible olfactory capabilities, dogs already know if we have cancer, infections or other illness, but they don't know how to tell us," Maurer said. "We are teaching them to communicate what they already know."
* Eileen Chao can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.