Dogs and diagnosis

Trainer brings cancer-detection dogs, future clinic to Chico

Longtime dog trainer Dina Zaphiris with her team of cancer-detection dogs, left to right: Stewie, an Australian shepherd, and German shepherds Linus and Leo. The latter two were rescued from doggie death row by Westside German Shepherd Rescue in Los Angeles.

Longtime dog trainer Dina Zaphiris with her team of cancer-detection dogs, left to right: Stewie, an Australian shepherd, and German shepherds Linus and Leo. The latter two were rescued from doggie death row by Westside German Shepherd Rescue in Los Angeles.

photo by howard hardee

Raise a research pooch:

If you're interested in raising a puppy that will become a cancer-detection dog for UC Davis, call the InSitu Foundation at (310) 968-8484 or go to You'll have to say goodbye to the puppy after 12 months, but it will go to a good home once it's a working dog.

A dog’s nose is an incredibly sensitive instrument. So much so, it’s difficult for us humans to grasp how feeble our sniffers are in comparison.

For instance, dogs can detect odors in parts per trillion, according to Inside of a Dog, by Alexandra Horowitz, a dog-cognition researcher at Barnard College. That means a dog can detect a teaspoon of sugar in 1 million gallons of water, or two Olympic-size pools—while a human nose might not pick up a teaspoon of sugar in a cup of coffee.

That dogs have such pinpoint sense with their snouts has long fascinated Dina Zaphiris, a native of Chico who recently moved back to town with her husband, Todd LaBrie, after living in Los Angeles for the past 23 years. More specifically, her interest lies in how a dog’s nose can help humans in medical settings.

Zaphiris is the CEO and founder of InSitu Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to training dogs to detect cancer in humans. The foundation is focused on catching cancer in its earliest stages, which is hit-and-miss even for researchers at the nation’s top universities. And as Zaphiris explained during a recent interview, detecting disease by scent isn’t so far-fetched.

“Diseases have smell; sick people smell bad,” she said. “We can smell cancer at latter stages. Stage 4? Oh, my goodness. And it smells different in someone who has undergone chemotherapy versus someone who has never had treatment.

“Today, doctors have cut out their sense of smell,” she continued. “They use three senses to examine a patient—they use vision to look at a patient or use an MRI and look at the scan; they use hearing to listen to your heart and lungs; and they use palpation, feeling for tumors and muscle quality.

“Dogs add a fourth sense to diagnosis, which we’ve kind of lost.”

InSitu Foundation is currently working with Duke University and UC Davis in studies using canine cancer-sniffers to find a blood-based biomarker for breast cancer and using saliva samples to detect upper respiratory cancer, respectively. The Duke study is currently in progress, while the UC Davis study will begin after Zaphiris finds a family in Chico to raise a puppy that will be trained to sniff out cancer in a yet-to-be-established clinic.

UC Davis initially envisioned that clinic, now just a proposal, being established in Davis. But Zaphiris balked at living there when she was asked to become the center’s director.

“I don’t want to live in Davis,” she said. “I’m 46, I’ve worked really hard my whole life; I want to choose where I live. Then they said we could have the center in Chico. When we got that news, my husband and I immediately started looking for a house, and we just moved here two weeks ago.

“Chico will be the first city in the world to offer low-cost, highly accurate, noninvasive screenings for early-stage cancer using scent-detection dogs.”

Zaphiris graduated from Chico High School in 1988, and then from UC Davis in 1992 with a bachelor of science in psychology. She then moved to Los Angeles, though she didn’t have a specific career plan.

She did have an interest in dogs. She began a mentorship in dog training with Richard Vye, the only protégé of Rudd Weatherwax, trainer of the original Lassie. By chance, she became a dog trainer for Hollywood stars—first for directors Tony and Ridley Scott and then for big-name actors.

“Somehow, I got in with the right people from the beginning,” she said. “When you’re training dogs for Bruce Willis, next thing you know you’re at Nicolas Cage’s house. I was at the right place at the right time.”

With her career well- established, Zaphiris began training scent-detection dogs for finding drugs, bombs and missing people in 2000. That work eventually led Zaphiris into the medical field. In 2003, she was approached by a group of doctors at the Pine Street Foundation in San Anselmo who wanted to explore whether it was possible to train dogs to identify cancer, because they’d seen their own dogs do it.

“These poodles that went to work with them every day kept going up to people and smelling the sites of their tumors; it was uncanny,” she said. “The doctors couldn’t believe it.”

Zaphiris agreed to train dogs for a double-blind clinical study, and the results were stunning. Using human breath samples, the dogs were able to detect lung cancer with 99 percent sensitivity—more accurately than a needle biopsy, she said. When the results were published in the Journal of Integrative Cancer Therapies in 2006, it was among the first studies on the subject.

Zaphiris was recruited again in 2012 for a federally funded study using breath samples to identify ovarian cancer; those results are still undergoing peer review, though she says “unofficially, we know the dogs did really well.” The next year, Zaphiris worked with Assistance Dogs of Hawaii, training 10 service dogs to detect urinary tract infections in the urine of disabled people, for which clinical trials are still underway.

That same year, Dr. Jeffrey Marks of Duke University contacted Zaphiris in an attempt to solve a decades-old research problem—finding a blood-based biomarker for breast cancer.

“We still can’t find early-stage cancer worth a darn,” she said. “If we can get the dogs to tell the difference in blood from cancer patients and noncancer patients, that shows that we should keep looking.”

All of the blood plasma samples in the study will be taken from women with breast tumors—some benign and some cancerous. Zaphiris is currently training dogs for the task. When she deems them ready for research, Duke will provide plasma samples and the double-blind clinical trial will begin.

Amid training dogs for the Duke study, Zaphiris was contacted by a team of surgeons and oncologists from UC Davis interested in her diagnostic method (she’s developed a 371-step process for training cancer-detection dogs). Last year, they flew out to Los Angeles to see her dogs at work.

“They were blown away, almost in tears,” she said. “Here you have doctors who’ve worked their whole lives to find cancer, and these dogs are just going ‘boom’ and identifying cancerous tumors.”

With the support of UC Davis’ Internal Review Board, the research team has engaged Zaphiris in a two-year study in which dogs will detect upper respiratory cancer in humans with spit samples. The work is intriguing because it might offer an inexpensive and noninvasive means of sample collection, from the patient’s perspective

“It’s easy—you spit, a dog sniffs,” she said.

If all goes to plan, that screening service will be offered at the proposed clinic in Chico, which will train dogs to detect every form of cancer, refine protocols for trainers, offer certifications for trainers, and conduct further clinical studies.