2015-03-04 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

Note: The following column first published on Aug. 14, 2014, won a Maxwell medallion in a newspaper category at the Dog Writers Association of America Banquet last month. This year at Westminster there were two more dogs that alerted their owners to deadly cancers. Here is the piece about the amazing 2014 Westminster Doberman:

“Twenty years ago I called a retired K-9 police officer in Florida to talk to him about his Standard Schnauzer, a top explosives dog who had been re-trained to sniff out deadly melanoma in people. At the time using dogs to detect cancer was a novel and controversial concept. Not anymore.

Duane Pickel had trained dogs for 33 years, including eight as a sergeant in Vietnam and 22 as head of the K-9 unit of the Tallahassee Police Department. He believed that a dog could be trained to find anything. In the mid-1990s Pickel began training “George,” his prizewinning Schnauzer, to find a test tube containing a melanoma sample. George was a top bomb-detection dog who obeyed more than 100 hand signals and had won nearly 400 obedience awards.

George’s accuracy soon topped 99% on tests such as finding the cancer sample in one of 10 holes in a long box. Next he detected 100% of the time when a nurse covered samples on herself with band-aids. Later George began searching patients with suspected but not confirmed melanomas. He correctly found moles that were verified as the cancer in five out of seven patients. At the time George’s amazing work was disputed by some experts.

But why the doubt? A 2012 article published by Nova states the canine sense of smell is 10,000 to 100,000 times more acute than ours, and goes on to say: “Dogs can detect some odors in parts per trillion. A dog-cognition researcher at Barnard College writes that while we might notice if our coffee has had a teaspoon of sugar added to it, a dog could detect a teaspoon of sugar in a million gallons of water, or two Olympic-sized pools worth.”

Research has shown that malignant tissues release chemicals that are different from normal tissue. Study after study supports the possibility of doctors using dogs to help diagnose or to learn how to copy the canine ability to smell specific cancers either with a machine or a chemical test. The largest study ever done on cancer-sniffing dogs found they can detect prostate cancer by smelling urine samples with 98% accuracy. Research from 2011 in the journal Gut cited a Labrador Retriever that correctly identified 91% of breath samples and 97% of stool samples from patients with colon cancer.

Presently, Ohlin, a chocolate Lab, “Tsunami,” a German Shepherd, and “McBaine,” a Springer Spaniel, are in the Ovarian Cancer Detection Study being conducted at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center. According to Bloomberg News, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania say the dog trio “is more than 90% successful in identifying the scent of ovarian cancer in tissue samples, opening a new window on a disease with no effective test for early detection that kills 14,000 Americans a year. When found early, there’s a five-year survival rate of over 90%”.

Revisiting Westminster 2014: I worked in the Westminster Kennel Club press room for the first time where there were over 2,000 media information emails from owners or handlers about dogs entered in the show. A young reporter from the Daily News said her editor wanted a compelling New York story. In 2013 they featured a Samoyed from Massapequa. After the owners’ home was destroyed by Sandy, they were living in a hotel but still entered their dog at Westminster.

I suggested a champion Doberman from Staten Island who as a puppy, the owner wrote, had detected breast cancer in his wife and saved her life. I recall saying to the reporter that if owners put this on the form, most likely they wouldn’t mind if the story were publicized. I had no idea at the time how wonderful these people and their Dobie were, or how much attention this story was about to demand. Remember: I was new to the Westminster press room, and it hadn’t sunk in yet that the world was the audience.

Harry Papazian of Staten Island explained that three years before, “Troy” (Ch. Raindance Led Zeppelin of Marquis), then a four-month-old puppy, alerted his wife Diane to a malignancy in her breast because the pup was particularly persistent when nuzzling her on the left side. This led to a self-examination discovery of a three-centimeter lump and a mammography, even though she had one six months before. Diane was diagnosed with Stage Two breast cancer, and underwent a double mastectomy and chemotherapy to beat the disease. She has been cancer-free ever since. Keep in mind “Troy” was only a puppy and he hadn’t been conditioned to smell chemical cancer indicators like all the adult dogs in the studies. He was truly a hero. Diane feels she “owes her life to Troy.”

After the Daily News story was published on Feb. 4, there were requests for more “Troy” interviews from Yahoo, CBS News, MSNBC, Fox & Friends, the Staten Island Advance and even the Daily Mail UK, just to name a few.

Before the Daily News story broke we were casting breed look-alikes for Regis Philbin’s TV show “Crowd Goes Wild.” I asked Harry if “Troy” could play the part of one of the sportscasters. I couldn’t believe it when he offered to drive to New Hampshire to pick him early at his handler’s home. It snowed the day of the filming; the show was postponed.

When re-scheduled the cast had changed. “Troy’s” body double wasn’t on. This turned out to be a blessing because “Troy” was in the midst of his media frenzy. The Papazians had to rush from an interview to make it to Times Square for the NASDAQ closing bell with other invited Westminster dogs.

The following week “Troy” won first Award of Merit in the Westminster breed ring. This magnificent, sweetheart of a Doberman is in therapy dog training, but refuses to do a “Sit” in front of the evaluator because top show dogs do not “Sit” in the ring in front of any judge.

Paw note: Weeks before Diane had called Westminster asking for help because she had run into a glitch when trying to submit the online media form. Imagine if she hadn’t made that phone call.”

At this year’s dog show, “Cooper,” a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, found his owner’s breast cancer. She handled “Cooper” to Best of Breed right after finishing her chemo. Meanwhile, “Romeo,” a Samoyed, alerted his owner to her other dog’s skin cancer.

Waiting at Babylon Animal Shelter (631-643-9270) Lamar St. W. Babylon: “Sugar” 14-410, a playful Shepherd/ Pit, has been at the shelter since last year while “Lia” 15-85, a Pekingese, was recently found as a stray in Wyandanch.

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