Essential Pittsburgh
5:04 pm
Tue November 12, 2013

Working Like a Dog

Cindy Otto at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center trains dogs and aims to use them to detect diseases in humans.
Credit John Donges/Penn Vet / wdc

Dogs are called man’s best friend for good reason. They have served with distinction in the military, sniffed out bombs and been caring companions to people with disabilities.

New research now pinpoints advances in the use of dogs to diagnose human diseases and help solve environmental problems.

Dr. Cindy Otto, of the University of Pennsylvania’s Working Dog Center, notes that some diseases and bacteria have a special odor, which dogs can smell. Medical studies in Europe have shown that some dogs can even pinpoint people with cancer.

But not all dogs are fit to be detection dogs as Otto notes, “Detection dogs, I like to think of, as sort of our professional athletes of the dog world.”

The dogs have to be physically fit, they need focus, they have to be trainable and they need a play drive. Play drive means using play with a toy as a motivation for the dogs to do their job. Typically this drive is found in hunting dogs, which are the majority of the dogs that Dr. Otto has worked with at the University of Pennsylvania.

According to Otto, detection dogs are also helping to solve environmental problems, “The opportunities are pretty endless,” she says.